At least seven Afghans died in a panicked crush of people trying to enter Kabul’s international airport, the British military said Sunday, as thousands were still trying to flee the country in a chaotic exodus a week after the Taliban takeover.
The Taliban moved to confront the first stirrings of armed resistance since capturing nearly all of Afghanistan in a matter of days earlier this month. Anti-Taliban fighters claimed to have seized three mountainous districts, and a prominent militia commander in the only province not yet under Taliban control pledged to fight back if attacked.
The British military on Sunday acknowledged at least seven deaths at the airport. Others may have been trampled, suffocated or suffered heart attacks as Taliban fighters fired into the air to try to drive back the crowds. Soldiers covered several corpses in white clothing. Other troops stood on concrete barriers, trying to calm the crowd.
Kabul’s airport, now one of the only routes out of the country, has seen days of chaos since the Taliban entered the capital on Aug. 15. Thousands poured onto the tarmac last week, and several Afghans plunged to their deaths after clinging to a U.S. military cargo plane as it took off, some of the seven killed on Aug. 16.
The Taliban have pledged amnesty to those who worked with the U.S., NATO and the toppled Afghan government, but many Afghans still fear revenge attacks. There have been reports in recent days of the Taliban hunting down their former enemies. It’s unclear if Taliban leaders are saying one thing and doing another, or if fighters are taking matters into their own hands.
Outside the airport on Saturday, Western troops in full combat gear tried to control crowds big enough to be seen in satellite photos. They carried away some who were sweating and pale. With temperatures reaching 34 degrees Celsius (93 F), the soldiers sprayed water from a hose on those gathered and gave out bottled water.
“The situation at Kabul airport remains extremely challenging and unpredictable,” a NATO official said on condition of anonymity in keeping with regulations. The official was not able to confirm a precise number of casualties.
The U.S. Embassy, which has relocated to the military side of the airport, has told American citizens and others not to come to the airport until they receive precise instructions.
President Joe Biden said the U.S.-led evacuation of Americans, at-risk Afghans and others from the Kabul airport picked up speed this weekend, although it remains vulnerable to threats from the Islamic State extremist group.
Biden told reporters at the White House that 11,000 people had been airlifted from Kabul in a 36-hour period this weekend, although he did not provide details. The number appeared to include flights by charter and non-U.S. military aircraft as well as the U.S. Air Force C-17 and C-130 transport planes that have been flying daily from the capital.
Biden said his first priority is getting American citizens out of the country “as quickly and safely as possible.”
“We’re working hard and as fast as we can to get people out,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “That’s our mission. That’s our goal.”
Earlier, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that 3,900 people had been flown from Kabul on U.S. military flights in the past 24 hours, up from 1,600 the previous day. That’s in addition to about 3,900 people airlifted on non-U.S. military flights over the past 24 hours. It remains far below the 5,000 to 9,000 that the military says it has the capacity to airlift daily.
Britain said it had airlifted more than 5,000 people, including 1,000 in the last 14 hours.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program, requesting 18 aircraft from U.S. carriers to assist in transporting Afghan refugees after they are evacuated to other countries. The voluntary program, born in the wake of the Berlin airlift, adds to the military’s capabilities during crises.
Biden has vowed to bring home all Americans from Afghanistan and to evacuate Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort. U.S. military helicopters have been used to collect 169 Americans from outside the airport. Tens of thousands of Americans and others are still hoping to fly out.
There also have been concerns about a potential attack on the airport by a local Islamic State affiliate. U.S. military planes have been executing corkscrew landings, and other aircraft have fired flares upon takeoff, measures used to prevent missile attacks.
The Taliban blame the chaotic evacuation on the U.S. military, saying there’s no need for Afghans to fear them, even though their fighters shoot into the air and beat people with batons as they try to control the crowds outside the airport.
“All Afghanistan is secure, but the airport, which is managed by the Americans, has anarchy,” Amir Khan Motaqi, a senior Taliban official, said Sunday. The U.S. “should not embarrass itself to the world and should not give this mentality to our people that (the Taliban) are a kind of enemy.”
Speaking to an Iranian state television channel Saturday night, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem also blamed the deaths at the airport on the Americans.
“The Americans announced that ‘we would take you to America with us,’ and people gathered at Kabul airport,” Naeem said. “If it was announced right now in any country in the world, would people not go?”
The Taliban have sought to project a more moderate image than when they last ruled the country, from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida carried out while being sheltered by the Taliban. During their earlier rule, women were largely confined to their homes, television and music were banned, and public executions were held — all under the Taliban’s harsh version of Islamic rule.
This time, the Taliban are holding talks with Afghan officials from previous governments on a political transition and say they will restore peace and security after decades of war. Afghan officials familiar with the talks say the Taliban have said they will not announce a government until after the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. withdrawal.
But they already face stirrings of resistance.
In Baghlan province, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Kabul, fighters calling themselves the “People’s Uprising” claimed to have seized three districts in the Andarab Valley, nestled in the towering Hindu Kush mountains.
Khair Mohammad Khairkhwa, the former provincial head of intelligence, and Abdul Ahmad Dadgar, another leader in the uprising, said Taliban fighters had burned down homes and kidnapped children. Two other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made similar allegations. The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the nearby Panjshir province — the only one yet to fall under Taliban control — a group of militia leaders and officials from the ousted government have pledged to defend it against the Taliban, who circulated video showing their fighters heading toward the region.
The province is a stronghold of the Northern Alliance fighters who joined with the U.S. to topple the Taliban in 2001, and Ahmad Massoud, the son of a famous Northern Alliance commander assassinated days before the 9/11 attacks, has appeared in videos from there.
But it appears unlikely a few thousand guerrilla fighters will soon succeed where the Afghan national security forces failed despite 20 years of Western aid, assistance and training.
“If Taliban warlords launch an assault, they will of course face staunch resistance from us,” Massoud said in an interview with the Al-Arabiya news network. But he also expressed openness to dialogue with the Taliban.