ECONOMY

Escape from Afghanistan: fear and terror as evacuation enters final phase

Shehzad was at home in Kabul with his family last week when Taliban soldiers came looking for him. While his father and brother kept them talking at the door, he leapt through a back window and ran across the city to a friend’s house. A day later, his wife and four children joined him. “They know me,” he said of the Taliban. “They are doing their best to find me.”

Shehzad, not his real name, spent three years as an interpreter alongside British forces in the southern province of Helmand and his place in the UK government’s emergency evacuation scheme had been confirmed. The night the Taliban knocked on his door he was waiting for details of his flight out of the Afghan capital.

When the call finally came on Wednesday night, the 31-year-old rushed his family to Kabul airport only to be rebuffed by Taliban guards. After they beat him and threatened to open fire on the crowd, the family returned home. Speaking on Friday morning, he said: “Now we are just waiting. If I am not relocated, I am scared I will be found and killed.”

Time is now running out for Shehzad and hundreds, possibly thousands, of other Afghans trying to escape. The evacuation effort is becoming more fraught and dangerous ahead of the August 31 departure deadline, originally set by the US but now being enforced by the Taliban, for foreign forces to leave. On Thursday, a suicide bomber affiliated to Isis struck at the airport, killing at least 79 Afghans and 13 US troops.

Afghan’s crowd into a US transport aircraft at Kabul airport. Western governments were caught off guard by the sheer number of people seeking assistance to escape the Taliban © Ssgt. Brandon Cribelar/U.S. Air/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa

For the past fortnight, following the collapse of Afghan forces which Nato allies had trained and funded over the past 20 years, Hamid Karzai airport has been the centre of an international mission to bring foreigners and Afghans who worked alongside them to safety. A fragile agreement struck by the US with the new Taliban leadership has allowed western allies to manage the airport perimeter and operate flights.

Amid rising instability, international forces had evacuated well over 100,000 of their own nationals and Afghans by Friday afternoon, but panic is growing among those who fear being left behind. Canada, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have now stopped their flights, while France and the UK are winding down evacuations. Families desperate to travel ignored terror warnings issued on Wednesday and surged to the gates outside the Baron Hotel, the UK’s evacuation centre.

Britain’s defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has spoken of his “deep regret” that some Afghans will not make it on to the final evacuation flights and suggested that those trying to flee should now approach land borders rather than attempting to reach the airport. Large crowds are reported to be gathering at the Spin Boldak border post with neighbouring Pakistan.

For Joe Biden, who is overseeing the largest and most dramatic western withdrawal from a conflict zone since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the political and military stakes are high. The US president has been fiercely criticised for his decision to end what he called “America’s longest war” and the subsequent rapid withdrawal of the last 2,500 US troops which dealt a heavy morale blow to Afghan forces. Just weeks from the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which prompted the 2001 US invasion, all eyes are on America’s final exit.

Even after the last civilian has been evacuated, the operation will not be over. This weekend, American forces — who have secured the airport with a deployment of 5,800 personnel alongside 1,000 UK troops and more from Turkey and Azerbaijan — will begin the perilous job of dismantling the security cordon while soldiers and equipment are flown out.

A baby is handed to US soldiers at the perimeter of Kabul airport. Canada, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have now stopped their flights, while France and the UK are winding down evacuations
A baby is handed to US soldiers at the perimeter of Kabul airport. Canada, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have now stopped their flights, while France and the UK are winding down evacuations © Omar Haidari/AP

General Sir Richard Barrons, former head of UK joint forces command who served in the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan, says handing control of security to the Taliban will be a moment of great jeopardy for both western forces and Afghan civilians. If crowds rush towards the airfield, Taliban forces may fire on them. Alternatively, the Taliban could stand back and allow a stampede.

“Then you have potentially thousands of people flooding the runway and surrounding planes which can no longer take off,” Barrons says. “That’s the nightmare scenario because you’re essentially stuck”.

‘Tightening the noose’

Afghanistan, often described as the graveyard of empires, has not proved an easy country from which to organise an emergency evacuation. It is landlocked, so the only route out is either by air or through land borders into Pakistan, Iran or Tajikistan. During previous airlift operations in countries such as Sierra Leone and Libya, international forces parked warships off the coast and shuttled evacuees to them by helicopter. By comparison, Kabul’s airport, which has only one runway and is surrounded by Taliban guards, is a chokepoint.

The western evacuation effort was hindered before it even began by the Taliban’s unexpectedly rapid capture of Kabul, and the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which many believed was still months away. The UK warned its citizens to urgently leave Kabul only a week before the Taliban marched into the capital on August 15, while the US followed with similar advice to its citizens a day later.

Western governments were caught off guard by the sheer number of people seeking assistance to escape the Taliban, including higher than expected numbers of foreign nationals of Afghan descent living in the country. “The number of foreign citizens with Afghan roots has been much bigger than we thought,” says one European official.

Embassies were also inundated with requests for help from others who had not been directly employed by foreign governments, as well as individuals involved in projects funded by them: human rights activists, journalists and women — who are seen as particularly at risk from the Taliban.

A US Marine hands a bottle of water to an Afghan evacuee. UK defence secretary Ben Wallace has suggested that those trying to flee should now approach land borders rather than attempting to reach the airport
A US Marine hands a bottle of water to an Afghan evacuee. UK defence secretary Ben Wallace has suggested that those trying to flee should now approach land borders rather than attempting to reach the airport © Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps via Getty Images

The failure to make earlier, more urgent warnings, meant many who might have easily left on commercial flights — which had been operating until the eve of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul — were still in the city when it declared an unexpected victory.

From this point, the exit plan had to be negotiated with the Taliban. “An example does not come to mind where the change in relationship from armed enemy to diplomatic engagement partner has been so sharp,” says Douglas Lute, a retired US general who previously directed Afghan strategy at Washington’s National Security Council.

Afghan civilians called to the airport have been taking as long as 48 hours to cross Kabul through multiple Taliban checkpoints, according to UK officials. Taliban guards have been filmed using whips and firing into the air to control crowds and at least seven Afghans have died in crushes near the airport. TV footage shows desperate civilians pushed up against large, concrete blast walls topped with coils of razor wire while western troops stand guard, trying to maintain order.

Concerned that prospective evacuees were not arriving at the airport, several Nato allies including the US, UK and France have conducted special forces operations, some by helicopter, to collect civilians from safe houses in Kabul. With western diplomats confined to the northern section of the airport, the US and Britain have also turned to Qatar — which hosts the biggest US military base in the region, and has facilitated talks between Washington and the Taliban — for assistance.

Afghans injured in the suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport lie in hospital beds in the Afghan capital. The blast, claimed by an Isis affiliate group, killed at least 60 Afghans and 13 US troops
Afghans injured in the suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport lie in hospital beds in the Afghan capital. The blast, claimed by an Isis affiliate group, killed at least 60 Afghans and 13 US troops © AP

The Gulf state has been able to use its connections during the evacuation chaos to run multiple convoys of diplomatic vehicles and buses ferrying thousands of Afghans and foreigners through Taliban checkpoints to the airport. To ensure their safe passage, the Qatari ambassador to Afghanistan has acted as an escort, including for one convoy last week which took almost 12 hours to reach the airport through gunfire.

“It’s been very risky, with all the shooting, it’s dangerous,” says a person briefed on Qatar’s role in the evacuation push. “The threat is not a Taliban government per se, it’s the factions underneath the main group who feel you are getting people out they want to get revenge on.”

While the Taliban leadership initially seemed unconcerned about the flood of Afghans seeking to flee the country, their attitude hardened this week, after a lethal firefight at one of the airport gates on Monday, killing one member of the Afghan security forces still working with the US military, and wounding several others.

At a press conference in Kabul the next day, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, declared the road to the airport — by then controlled by the militant group’s elite and well equipped Badri Unit — would be closed to local Afghans, due to the deteriorating security situation. From then on, Taliban guards were generally permitting only foreign passport and US green card holders to travel the road to the airport.

Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a Taliban spokesman, told the Financial Times the decision to block Afghans was taken “due to congestion created at the airport and due to security reasons”.

Afghan civilians gather outside Kabul airport. Some people have been taking as long as 48 hours to cross the capital though multiple Taliban checkpoints, according to UK officials
Afghan civilians gather outside Kabul airport. Some people have been taking as long as 48 hours to cross the capital though multiple Taliban checkpoints, according to UK officials © Marcus Yam/LA Times/Polaris/ eyevine

But Mujahid also expressed concerns about the exodus of educated people, and urged the US to stop taking “Afghan experts” such as engineers because their expertise is needed in Afghanistan.

General Wayne Eyre, Canada’s acting chief of defence staff, summed up the situation as he announced the end of Ottowa’s evacuation process on Thursday. “It’s very, very difficult for anybody to get through at this point,” he said. “The Taliban have tightened the noose.”

‘There’s no buffer with the enemy’

Military chiefs planning the final exit are expected to set false deadlines in the coming days to try to seize the initiative over the Taliban. But they are running out of time for such ruses to be effective. US troops, which have led the airport operation including taking over air traffic control, are expected to leave last, forming a rearguard for other western forces. US reconnaissance aircraft spotted over Kabul are likely to be relaying intelligence on Taliban positions back to the Pentagon.

“It’s a very tenuous tactical situation from a military security perspective,” says Lute. “The airport is secure but it’s also surrounded. So you have no stand-off, you can’t see the Taliban coming from a distance, they’re just there. There’s no buffer with the enemy.”

Following the bombing on Thursday, military planners are also alive to the continuing threat of another suicide attack by Isis-K, the regional affiliate of the terror group which is active in Afghanistan. Diplomats and border officials processing visas will leave on the final civilian flights. Troops have already slimmed down their kit to the bare minimum. One UK military official in Kabul said this week that soldiers were down to their last rations and are “living in the equipment they’re carrying with them and just the clothes they’re wearing”, surviving with a small rucksack each to reduce the final cargo.

Afghans trying to flee the country climb on top of an aircraft at Kabul airport. Western military chiefs planning the final exit are expected to set false deadlines in the coming days to try to seize the initiative over the Taliban
Afghans trying to flee the country climb on top of an aircraft at Kabul airport. Western military chiefs planning the final exit are expected to set false deadlines in the coming days to try to seize the initiative over the Taliban © Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

The decision for US forces will be whether to leave behind heavy equipment in order to make more space for civilians on departing aircraft. Jim Banks, a Republican House representative and former US Navy reservist, suggested this week that the Taliban now has access to more than $85bn of US military equipment which was supplied to Afghan forces. The Pentagon could not immediately confirm the figure. Reports in US media suggest artillery, mortars and anti-drone weapons will be left in place and “destroyed” so they do not fall into Taliban hands.

“If there needs to be destruction or other disposition of equipment there at Hamid Karzai International Airport then we’ll do that and we’ll do that appropriately”, the Pentagon said this week, adding that “lives are always gonna be the priority” over kit.

One western defence official describes the loss of Bagram air base which US forces left suddenly in early July, as a “significant” strategic weakness. Bagram, the centre of US operations in the country since the 2001 invasion, could have provided a useful staging post outside Kabul for last-minute evacuations by helicopter. But that option has now been lost. Instead, the US military may have to fly larger helicopters such as Chinooks to a neighbouring country because they do not have the range to reach the nearest American bases in the UAE and Qatar. Smaller MH-6 Little Bird helicopters, which have been deployed on rescue missions in Kabul, will have to be packed on to larger transport aircraft for the journey home.

Just a few miles from the airport, Shehzad is still waiting for his departure. His family are too scared to risk another trip to the terminal gate after the terror attack, and he is hoping his former British employers will arrange an escort to the plane. If this doesn’t work, he is planning other routes out, maybe via Pakistan or Tajikistan, but the future is unclear.

“We are disappointed and worried and just waiting,” he said. “We are here, waiting.”

Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington

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