US president Joe Biden said US troops in Afghanistan faced mounting danger as they pushed to complete evacuations by an August 31st deadline, with aid agencies warning of a looming humanitarian crisis for the population left behind.
The United States and its allies have evacuated more than 70,000 people, including their citizens, Nato personnel and Afghans at risk, since August 14th, the day before the Taliban swept into the capital, Kabul.
Western countries are now rushing to complete the airlift before the deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops under an agreement struck with the Taliban last year to end the US’s longest war.
Mr Biden said US troops were on pace to meet the deadline.
“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Mr Biden said on Tuesday. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”
It comes as European leaders failed to persuade the US president to keep troops at Kabul airport beyond the deadline at a meeting of the G7, leaving just days to complete evacuations.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said there was “no new date” for the end of evacuations after a virtual meeting in which London, Paris and Berlin pushed for Washington to continue its military presence to give more time to extract people who fear for their lives after the Taliban takeover.
The Islamist militant group have offered reassurances that there will not be reprisal killings after they swept to take control of the country in an ignominious end for the US and its allies to a 20-year war.
But the group’s enduring reputation for brutality and executions has spurred tens of thousands of Afghans to desperately seek to leave the country or go into hiding, particularly those who worked with international forces and organisations.
Risk of persecution
The Taliban declared that Afghans would not longer be allowed to reach the airport on Tuesday, saying that this was necessary to prevent a repeat of fatal crushes but also accusing the US of removing skilled people whose expertise was needed in the country.
“The road that ends at Kabul airport has been blocked. Foreigners can go through it but Afghans are not allowed to take the road,” said Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid.
While the focus is now on those people trying to flee, the risk of starvation, disease and persecution is rising for the rest of the population after the chaotic exodus from Kabul airport ends, aid agencies say.
“There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by Covid,” David Beasley, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme, told Reuters in Doha, calling for the international community to donate $200 million (€170 million) in food aid.
“The number of people marching towards starvation has spiked to now 14 million.”
Afghanistan’s population is estimated at 36 million though no census has been completed over more than 40 years of warfare and refugee movements.
The EU said this week it was planning a quadrupling in aid and was seeking coordination with the United Nations on delivery as well as safety guarantees on the ground.
Foreign donors pledged a projected $12 billion (€10.2 billion) in civilian aid to Afghanistan over four years at a conference last November, but many made it conditional on protecting human rights and progress on peace talks.
The UN human rights chief said she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taliban, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taliban have said they will investigate any reports of atrocities.
A Nato country diplomat in Kabul, who declined to be identified, said several international aid groups are desperate to get their Afghan staff to neighbouring nations.
Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul’s airport since the Taliban takeover, the lucky ones securing seats on flights.
The Nato country diplomat said Afghanistan’s neighbours should open their land borders to allow more people to leave.
The Taliban said all foreign evacuations must be completed by August 31st, and asked the United States to stop urging talented Afghans to leave, while also trying to persuade people at the airport to go home, assuring them that they had nothing to fear.
“We guarantee their security,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference on Tuesday.
Mr Biden, in remarks at the White House, said the United States was racing to meet the August 31st deadline as concerns mount over the threat of militant attacks.
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was growing concern about the risk of suicide bombings by Islamic State at the airport. – Reuters