The vast international effort to evacuate thousands of Afghans and vulnerable foreign nationals from Kabul airport ended on Saturday as the United States continued to withdraw its remaining troops from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after it carried out a retaliatory airstrike in response to a devastating terrorist attack.
Britain planned to end the evacuation of its citizens on Saturday and start bringing its remaining troops home, Defense Chief General Nick Carter told BBC Radio 4 Other American troops also began to board planes and leave. A military official said on Saturday that there were around 4,000 US troops in Kabul, up from 5,800 A few days ago. The official’s comment came just as President Biden warned that “an attack is very likely within the next 24 to 36 hours.”
The departures of troops marked the tumultuous end of a 20-year war that plunged the country into grief and despair, with many Afghans fearing for their lives under the Taliban and struggling with cash flow and rising food prices.
“We couldn’t get everyone out and it was heartbreaking,” General Carter told the BBC. “There were some very difficult judgments that had to be made on the pitch. “
France has also ended its evacuations, French officials said on Friday.
There are three days left before the August 31 deadline set by Mr. Biden for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. As the date draws closer, the evacuation mission has shifted from checking and airlifting Afghan civilians to repatriating US troops and military personnel.
About 6,800 people were evacuated from the airport on Friday, down significantly from Thursday morning, when White House officials said 13,400 people had been evacuated from Kabul airport in the past 24 hours. .
About 117,000 people, mostly Afghans, have been evacuated since the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15, Pentagon officials said. About 1,400 people were still at the airport on Saturday and had been screened and booked for flights, Pentagon officials said.
About 350 Americans have told the State Department they are still seeking to leave the country, the department said on Saturday, adding that it believes some may have already left Afghanistan..
It is believed that hundreds of thousands of Afghans are still trying to flee the country, but Mr Biden and other world leaders have acknowledged that many will not get out before the deadline.
Outside Kabul airport on Saturday, roads remained closed and the large crowd that had struggled to get inside had largely dissipated following Thursday’s suicide bombing, which killed 13 US servicemen and up to 170 civilians.
At the door of the abbey, near the site of the bombardment, only two families and two young men were still waiting.
The south gate to the airport remained open and there was a growing backlog of buses carrying some 500 to 1,000 people, as US military personnel searched for suicide vests and other explosives. The Taliban, who controlled the checkpoints around the airport, also turned back dozens of buses. Few, if any, passed through the airport gates.
Among those still hoping to leave were two brothers who said they had traveled 26 hours from Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, and managed to sneak past the guards outside the perimeter of the city. airport to reach the abbey gate. One of them said he was selected by a US visa lottery.
The brothers knew about the fatal explosion at the door two nights ago, “but what can we do,” one said on Saturday. “It’s our only way out.”
Thursday’s airport attack was one of the deadliest in nearly two decades since the US-led invasion.
“The situation on the ground continues to be extremely dangerous and the threat of terrorist attacks on the airport remains high,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday. “Our commanders have informed me that an attack is very likely within the next 24 to 36 hours.”
The Pentagon on Saturday gave its most comprehensive account to date of Friday’s strike in response to the shelling outside Kabul airport. He said the military used a drone to kill two “high profile” targets for the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K or Islamic State Khorasan, a rival group of the Taliban and which claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack. Military officials said another target was injured.
Defense Ministry officials said one of the drone’s targets was an ISIS-K “planner” and the other was a “facilitator”.
The strike was carried out by a single MQ-9 Reaper drone flying from a base in the United Arab Emirates, according to a senior US military official. The targets were struck in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, about 90 miles east of Kabul.
The “planner” who was killed is believed to be involved in future plots against targets in Kabul, including the airport, but there was so far no evidence that he was involved in the near suicide bombing. from the airport on Thursday, the official said.
“I said we were going to prosecute the group responsible for the attack on our troops and innocent civilians in Kabul, and we did,” Biden said in his statement. “This strike was not the last. We will continue to hunt down anyone involved in this heinous attack and make them pay. “
An aide to Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Saturday of the drone strike: “We have heard the information about the Nangarhar incident, but we are trying to find the type of incident and the victims. After an investigation, we will react to this.
For the first time, Pentagon officials have publicly acknowledged the possibility that some people killed outside the airport on Thursday were shot dead by U.S. servicemen after the suicide bombing.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Pentagon officials had previously acknowledged that there had been gunfire after the bombing, but said they did not know where it had come from. Investigators are investigating whether the shots came from Americans at the gate or from Islamic State.
“We cannot confirm that,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, of reports that Afghan civilians may have been shot dead by US troops. “And we certainly can’t deny that either. We are investigating this. “
The suicide bombing and US drone strike came as the Afghan economy, which has been supported for years by an influx of international aid, was in free fall.
May Afghans struggle to provide for their families and have gathered in front of banks and ATMs in the hope of withdrawing money, only to return home cashless and desperate.
On Saturday, hundreds of people demonstrated outside a bank branch in Kabul and dozens more marched through central Kabul to demand the reopening of banks that had closed after the Taliban takeover.
“Islamic government, give us our rights! They chanted. One of the country’s largest banks, Azizi Bank, issued a statement to customers saying it was waiting for the Afghan central bank to resume operations before reopening.
A central bank official said it would reopen on Sunday, but to avoid bank runs it might not start distributing money until a new government is in place.
The Taliban have indicated that Hajji Mohammad Idris, a member of the movement, will assume the post of interim head of the central bank. News reports have indicated that Mr. Idris has no formal financial training.
Despite the end of its presence in Afghanistan, the United States still controls billions of dollars belonging to the Afghan central bank, money that Washington is ensuring is kept out of the reach of the Taliban.
Concern is also growing about the plight of farmers and herders, who form the backbone of Afghanistan’s rural economy. The country continues to be hit hard by the worsening drought that threatens the livelihoods of more than 7 million people who depend on agriculture or livestock, the United Nations warned on Saturday. food and agriculture.
“Farmers and livestock owners should not be forgotten in the current humanitarian crisis,” said Qu Dongyu, general manager of the organization. “Urgent agricultural support is now essential to counter the impact of the drought and the worsening situation in the vast rural areas of Afghanistan in the weeks and months to come. “
Reporting was provided by Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Najim Rahim, Jim Huylebroek, Fahim Abed and Thomas Gibbons-Neff.