Chaos enveloped the international airport in Kabul on Monday, with U.S. troops trying to maintain order while throngs of people rushed the tarmac and large crowds crushed against the facility’s outer gates amid mounting collective fear a day after the Taliban swept back to power in the Afghan capital.
A top White House official said the U.S. military would work through the day to evacuate women, judges and other Afghans who could “be in the crosshairs” of the Taliban.
“These are desperate people,” Jonathan Finer, White House deputy national security adviser, told CNN. “These are people who quite rightly are looking for a way out.”
The Biden administration issued statements Sunday night asserting the perimeter of the airport was “secured by the U.S. military.” But by Monday, there were reports that at least five people were killed as hundreds scrambled to forcibly board planes.
One witness told Reuters that he had seen the bodies of five people being taken to a vehicle. With reports that U.S. troops had fired into the sky in a bid to scatter an unwieldy crowd gathering on the tarmac, another witness told Reuters that it wasn’t clear whether the victims were killed by gunshots or in a stampede.
The Associated Press later said seven people died, including some who fell from a departing American military transport jet.
The developments came as uncertainty mounted over the future direction of the Afghan government under Taliban rule. The government America built and supported for nearly 20 years in Afghanistan collapsed in a single day Sunday as Taliban fighters rolled into Kabul uncontested preparing to announce a new Islamist state.
Representatives from the group said the country will once again be called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the same name Afghanistan had in the late-1990s, when the Taliban last controlled Kabul and provided a safe haven for the al Qaeda terrorists who planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Associated Press characterized the Afghan capital as being “gripped by panic,” with many Afghans fearing the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that, among much else, all but eliminated women’s rights the last time it ruled the country.
The past week saw the Biden administration order thousands of fresh U.S. troops into the country to safeguard what was gearing up to be a large-scale airlift. The administration announced late Sunday it was taking charge of air traffic control at the airport, even as it lowered the flag at the U.S. Embassy.
Mr. Finer said Monday that “the United States has the forces that are necessary to bring stability and security to that airport.”
The deputy national security adviser told CNN the U.S. will be providing security at the airport and selecting people for flights based on existing criteria. He insisted it won’t be a “free for all” and that people cannot just show up at the airport.
Mr. Finer also pledged “severe consequences” from the U.S. military if the Taliban interferes with efforts to get prioritized Afghans from outside provinces to the airport.
He spoke amid questions from both parties about the debacle unfolding on the other side of the globe.
President Biden has been monitoring the unfolding events from Camp David in Maryland, raising questions about whether he will address the American people about the chaotic unwinding of U.S. involvement after a 20-year war in Afghanistan — and how his assurances of an orderly exit went so wrong.
“The president has spoken to this extensively, and I expect that he will speak to it again soon,” Mr. Finer told CNN.
Lawmakers said Mr. Biden needs to show his face and get U.S. partners out.
“While Afghanistan falls to jihadi militants, our Afghan allies are on the verge of slaughter, and America gets humiliated, President Biden hides out at Camp David. It’s unacceptable,” Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, said. “The mission at this point ought to be simple: Bolster American troops and firepower until we can get flights running around the clock. The Taliban must not dictate when every last American, our courageous Afghan partners, and their families are off the tarmac.”
Some faulted the administration for wasting time on visa paperwork instead of the task at hand.
“The fact that, at this hour, we have not even secured the civilian half of the Kabul airport is testament to our moral and operational failure,” Rep. Seth Moulton, Massachusetts Democrat and a Marine Corps veteran, said.
A joint statement from the U.S. State and Defense departments pledged late Sunday to speed up visa processing for Afghans who used to work with American troops and officials in particular. High-profile Afghan women, journalists, and Afghans who’ve worked with Western governments and nonprofits are among those who fear Taliban targeting for alleged Western ways or ties.
A separate statement circulated by the governments of more than a dozen countries around the world said an international effort is underway “to secure, and call on all parties to respect and facilitate, the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country.”
“Afghans and international citizens who wish to depart must be allowed to do so; roads, airports and border crossing must remain open, and calm must be maintained,” the separate statement said.
Rival superpowers relished the black eye for American power.
“The military defeat and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan should become an opportunity to revive life, security, and lasting peace in the country,” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
China said it will deepen ties with Afghanistan’s new rulers.
“The Taliban have repeatedly expressed their hope to develop good relations with China, and that they look forward to China’s participation in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.