Politics

Taliban blocking Afghans from reaching Kabul airport breaking commitments, State Department says

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Key Points
  • The Taliban is reportedly blocking Afghans from reaching Kabul's international airport to flee the country, breaking their commitments to the U.S., a Biden administration official said.
  • That acknowledgement at a press briefing came shortly after the U.S. Embassy in Kabul alerted people there that it "cannot ensure safe passage" to the airport for the capital city, where Islamist militants had overthrown the U.S.-backed Afghan government with astonishing speed.
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The Taliban is reportedly blocking Afghans from reaching Kabul's international airport to flee the country, breaking their commitments to the U.S., a Biden administration official said Wednesday.

That acknowledgement at a press briefing came shortly after the U.S. Embassy in Kabul alerted people there that it "cannot ensure safe passage" to the airport for the capital city, where Islamist militants had overthrown the U.S.-backed Afghan government with astonishing speed.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman speaks on the situation in Afghanistan at the State Department in Washington, DC, August 18, 2021.
Andrew Harnik | Pool via Reuters

Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) urged the U.S. not to forget journalists and support staff in Afghanistan.

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, they said there are still about 200-plus journalists and support staff as well as their families in Afghanistan seeking to evacuate. "Please ensure that as evacuation flights continue, journalists and support staff are not forgotten," the senators said.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said at the briefing Wednesday afternoon that "we have seen reports that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government, are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport."

The U.S. military in Kabul and a team in Qatar are "engaging directly with the Taliban to make clear that we expect them to allow all American citizens, all third-country nationals and all Afghans who wish to leave, to do so safely and without harassment," Sherman said.

She added that "so far, it appears that the Taliban's commitment for safe passage for Americans has been solid," though she noted that she doesn't know about "every case."

But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged Wednesday that the military currently lacks the capability to safely escort Americans in Kabul to the airport for evacuation.

"I don't have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul," Austin said.

About 2,000 people have been evacuated in the past 24 hours, Sherman said, with more than 4,840 processed for evacuation over the previous few days.

Taliban fighters patrol in Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.
Rahmat Gul | AP

The Biden administration has come under intensifying criticism over the chaos in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have seized control just weeks before the U.S. ends its military presence there after nearly two decades of war.

Even President Joe Biden's Democratic allies have called for investigations into the government's handling of the withdrawal.

The insurgents' rapid advance caught the U.S. off guard, prompting scenes of panic at Hamid Karzai International Airport as thousands of Afghans rushed the tarmac, with some clinging to airplanes even as they took off.

About 4,500 U.S. troops were deployed to the airport to facilitate the evacuation. Some troops have reportedly fired warning shots into the air, intending to control the crowds of arrivals.

"The events and images of the last week have been wrenching for all of us," Sherman said at the briefing, describing the situation as "enormously challenging and fluid."

"This is an all-hands-on-deck effort, and we aren't going to let up," she said.

Sherman was also asked about a security alert sent earlier Wednesday from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which warned that "U.S. government-provided flights are departing" and that all U.S. citizens and lawful residents, as well as their spouses and unmarried children under 21 years old, "should consider travelling to Hamid Karzai International Airport."

But, the alert said in all capital letters, the U.S. "cannot ensure safe passage" to the airport.

Sherman said she had so far seen no reports of Americans being "harassed or hustled," or blocked from getting to the airport.