Politics

Afghan staff at U.S. Embassy losing faith in evacuation efforts, diplomatic cable says

Abigail Williams and Yuliya Talmazan
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UK coalition forces, Turkish coalition forces, and U.S. Marines assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo taken on August 20, 2021. Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Sgt. Victor Mancilla | U.S. Marine Corps | via Reuters

WASHINGTON — Local staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul are "deeply disheartened" by U.S. evacuation efforts and have expressed a sense of betrayal and distrust in the American government, according to a State Department diplomatic cable obtained by NBC News.

Sent Saturday, the cable said that memos had been sent to Afghan staff at embassy on Wednesday, inviting them to head to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. It told them to take food and prepare for difficult conditions.

"However, no one anticipated the brutal experience that occurred," the cable said.

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Staff reported being jostled, hit, spat on and cursed at by Taliban fighters at checkpoints near the airport, it said, adding that criminals were taking advantage of the chaos while the U.S. military tried to maintain order "in an extremely physical situation."

Some staff reported that they were almost separated from their children, while others collapsed in crush of people and had to be taken to hospital with injuries, the cable said. Others said they had collapsed on the road because of heat exhaustion, it added.

"It would be better to die under the Taliban's bullet" than face the crowds again, one staff member was quoted as saying in the cable.

"Happy to die here, but with dignity and pride," another said, while a third accused the U.S. of prioritizing Afghan government elites with contacts in America, who already had the correct paperwork and other ways of fleeing the country.

One local embassy staff member reported that his family home had been tagged with spray paint — a tactic the Taliban have used in the past to identify the home's occupants for further questioning, the cable said, adding that the family had been forced to flee their home but was unable to get to the airport.

Others shared concerns about conditions in Qatar, where many refugees are flown to before making their way to other locations.

The U.S. began evacuating its citizens, diplomatic staff and Afghans who aided its mission in the country last week as the Taliban seized control of much of Afghanistan before finally walking into Kabul last Sunday without firing a shot.

A State Department Spokesperson said the U.S. has a "special commitment" to local Embassy staff who "have suffered hardship, pain and loss because of their dedication to working with us to build a better future for all Afghans."

They added that the U.S. has been "working tirelessly to improve access to the airport," and to assist people eligible for flights.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday 8,000 people had been evacuated from Kabul on 60 flights in the last 24 hours and the U.S. had reached an agreement with about two dozen countries over four continents who are now helping or will soon help with the transit of people out of Kabul.

"We've seen wrenching images of people hurt, even killed that hit you in the gut," Secretary Blinken told FOX News." And it's very important to make sure to the best of our ability, because it's such a volatile situation, that we do something about the crowding at the gates of the airport, and that's exactly what we're doing."

Thousands of people have been evacuated so far, but President Joe Biden has faced criticism at home and abroad for the chaos that has ensued at the Kabul airport since the militant group took over.

Biden vowed to get Americans home and help Afghans who'd assisted U.S. forces in the country and others who might be in danger on Friday, but time is running out ahead of his Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining U.S. troops. However, he said that deadline could extend until all troops were withdrawn.

The Pentagon said Sunday that it would draft in commercial aircraft to help transport people once they have been evacuated from Afghanistan.

Outside the airport in Kabul in an area controlled by the Taliban, there were reports of violence and people killed by either gunfire or in stampedes.

The U.K. government said Sunday that seven Afghans had died after being crushed in the crowds around the airport.

Complicating matters, the U.S. embassy, on Saturday, advised that American citizens trying to leave should not travel to Kabul's airport unless they are individually told to because of "potential security threats."

Two Defense officials said the U.S. was tracking specific threats from ISIS against Americans and the airport.

Abigail Williams reported from Washington and Yuliya Talmazan from London.