KABUL (AP/LEX 18) — The chop of U.S. military helicopters whisking American diplomats to Kabul’s airport on Sunday punctuated a frantic rush by thousands of other foreigners and Afghans to flee to safety as well, as a stunningly swift Taliban takeover reached Afghanistan’s capital.
U.S. reports of gunfire at the airport threatened to shut down one of the last avenues of escape in an ever-more chaotic and compressed evacuation.
NATO allies that had pulled out their forces ahead of the Biden administration's intended Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline were rushing troops back in this weekend to airlift their citizens, while the Pentagon was sending in fresh reinforcements.
Some complained the U.S. was failing to move fast enough to bring to safety the Afghans who fear retribution from the Taliban for past work with the Americans and other NATO forces.
“This is murder by incompetence,” said U.S. Air Force veteran Sam Lerman, struggling Sunday from his home in Woodbridge, Virginia, to find a way out for an Afghan contractor who had guarded Americans and other NATO forces at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Vase for a decade.
Massouma Tajik, a 22-year-old data analyst, was among hundreds of Afghans waiting anxiously in the Kabul airport to board an evacuation flight.
“I see people crying, they are not sure whether their flight will happen or not. Neither am I,” she said by phone, with panic in her voice.
Educated Afghan women have some of the most to lose under the fundamentalist Taliban, whose past government, overthrown by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, sought to largely confine women to the home.
Taliban forces moved early Sunday into a capital beset by fear and declared they were awaiting a peaceful surrender, capping a stunning sweep of Afghanistan in just the past week.
That arrival of the first waves of Taliban insurgents into Kabul prompted the U.S. to evacuate the embassy in full, apparently leaving only a core of U.S. diplomats at the airport for the time being. Even as CH-47 helicopters shuttled American diplomats to the airport, and facing criticism at home over the administration's handling of the withdrawal, Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the 1975 fall of Saigon.
“This is being done in a very deliberate way, it’s being done in an orderly way,” Blinken insisted on ABC’s “This Week.”
John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said the evacuation was following plans developed and rehearsed months ago.
“One of the reasons we have been able to respond as quickly as we have these past few days is because we were ready for this contingency,” Kirby said.
To many, however, the evacuations, and last-ditch rescue attempts by Americans and other foreigners trying to save Afghan allies, appeared far from orderly.
An Italian journalist, Francesca Mannocchi, posted a video of an Italian helicopter carrying her to the airport, an armed soldier standing guard at a window. Mannochi described watching columns of smoke rising from Kabul as she flew. Some were from fires that workers at the U.S. Embassy and others were using to keep sensitive material from falling into Taliban hands.
She said Afghans stoned an Italian convoy. She captioned her brief video: “Kabul airport. Evacuation. Game Over."
Hundreds or more Afghans crowded in a part of the airport away from many of the evacuating Westerners. Some of them, including a man with a broken leg sitting on the ground, lined up for what was expected to be the last flight out by the country's Ariana Airlines.
U.S. officials reported gunfire near the airport Sunday evening and urged civilians to stop coming. U.S. military officials later announced closing the airport to commercial flights, shutting one of the last avenues of escape for ordinary Afghans.
U.S. C-17 transport planes were due to bring thousands of fresh American troops to the airport, then fly out again with evacuating U.S. Embassy staffers. The Pentagon was now sending an additional 1,000 troops, bringing the total number to about 6,000, a U.S. defense official said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a deployment decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.
The Pentagon intends to have enough aircraft to fly out as many as 5,000 civilians a day, both Americans and the Afghan translators and others who worked with the U.S. during the war.
But tens of thousands of Afghans who have worked with U.S. and other NATO forces are seeking to flee with family members. And it was by no means clear how long Kabul’s deteriorating security would allow any evacuations to continue.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose government had been one of many expressing surprise at the speed of the U.S. withdrawal, told reporters in Berlin on Sunday that it was “difficult to endure” watching how quickly the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and how little government troops were able to do to stop them.
At a North Carolina-based adoption agency, Mary Beth Lee King sought a way to extricate two Afghan boys, ages 11 and 2, due for adoption by families in America.
“I am terrified and heartbroken. I can only imagine what they themselves are feeling,” King said of the children’s adoptive parents and Afghan families.
“Even if the U.S. won’t admit them to the U.S., get them somewhere, so that ... we know that they are alive and safe,” she said of the two Afghan children.
In Virginia, Lerman, the Air Force veteran, stayed up overnight Saturday to Sunday to finish an application for a special U.S. visa program meant to rescue Afghans who had worked with Americans.
When Lerman hit “send,” he got a message saying the State Department email box for the rescue program was full, he said, sharing screenshots.
The Afghan security contractor he was working to get out was sitting frightened inside his home with the blinds drawn and Taliban fighters outside, he said.
The State Department said late Sunday afternoon it believed it had fixed the problem.
“Never in my life have I been ashamed to be an American before," Lerman said. "And I am, deeply.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) released a statement following a briefing from the Biden Administration on Sunday:
“The Biden Administration’s botched exit from Afghanistan including the frantic evacuation of Americans and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul is a shameful failure of American leadership.
“The rapid advance of the Taliban was expected after the US abandonment of Afghan security forces. The plight of innocent Afghans was predicted, and the challenges of safely evacuating US personnel and innocent Afghans have been magnified by our inexplicable withdrawal from Bagram Air Base. And the likelihood that Al Qaeda will return to plot attacks from Afghanistan is growing.
“Everyone saw this coming except the President, who publicly and confidently dismissed these threats just a few weeks ago. The strategic, humanitarian, and moral consequences of this self-inflicted wound will hurt our country and distract from other challenges for years to come.
“America’s two-decade involvement in Afghanistan has had many authors. So have the strategic missteps made along the way. I have never hesitated to express myself candidly when leaders of either party threatened to put politics ahead of reality on the ground. But as the monumental collapse our own experts predicted unfolds in Kabul today, responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of our current Commander-in-Chief.
“A proud superpower has been reduced to hoping the Taliban will not interfere with our efforts to flee Afghanistan. God knows what fate awaits vulnerable Afghans who cannot make it to Kabul to board one of the final flights out. Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low.
“It did not have to happen this way. The United States had the capacity to avoid this disaster. We still have the capacity to dampen its effects, but without a presence on the ground or local partners, defending the homeland from a resurgent al Qaeda will be far more difficult.”
Republican Congressman Andy Barr who has represented central Kentucky in Washington since 2013 also released a statement.
“President Biden’s precipitous, disorganized and disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has jeopardized everything Americans fought and died for in that country. This catastrophic foreign policy blunder has culminated today with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, erasing two decades of progress countering radical jihadists who threaten our homeland.
“The U.S. residual force of 2,500 troops, along with our NATO allies, kept Afghanistan from falling into Taliban control. This was a much smaller and less costly footprint than the American presence in Germany, Japan, and South Korea over the last 75 years.
“During my last visit to Afghanistan, I saw firsthand how these forces, in support of Resolute Support Mission, have been critical to countering terrorism and preventing another 9/11 style attack against our homeland.
“That is why, for months, I have warned the Biden Administration against surrendering Bagram Air Base as part of their withdrawal policy. Thousands of terrorists captured by American forces and detained at Bagram are now being released, free to target Americans and commit other heinous acts of terrorism. President Biden’s open border policies at the southern border make it much easier for them to do so.
“Multiple individuals on the terror watch list have been apprehended at the southern border since President Biden took office. That is why I am calling on President Biden to immediately reverse his dangerous open border policy and take all actions necessary to prevent these terrorists from exploiting our open border.”
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who has previously said he supported the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, has not publicly committed as of Sunday afternoon.