The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scenes of deadly chaos unfold at Kabul airport after Taliban’s return

Afghans and foreigners rushed to the Kabul airport on Aug. 16,2021 in hopes of leaving the country as the Taliban declared victory. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

KABUL — The first full day of Taliban rule in Kabul on Monday saw a mad rush by thousands of Afghans on the city’s international airport, in a frantic, last-ditch effort to flee the country.

Hundreds of people ran alongside the wheels of a U.S. military aircraft as it attempted to take off Monday. Others climbed up the sides of the plane as it edged forward, engines roaring.

Some kept hold of the undercarriage even as the aircraft rose, and at least one person appeared to fall from a height during takeoff. One local Afghan news agency published images of a body that apparently landed on a Kabul rooftop.

At least seven people at the airport have been confirmed dead, the Associated Press reported.

The dire scenes illustrated the level of fear sweeping some parts of Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover on the heels of the U.S. military withdrawal — a policy decision critics described as the hasty abandonment of a country to which American officials once pledged unflinching commitment.

“What has happened to us? Have we turned into animals?” said one man at the airport as he watched people elbow and kick on a narrow staircase for a seat on a plane that would take them abroad.

Like others in this report, the man spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The man shook his head in disbelief at his surroundings as well as at himself. He was still in the middle of the application process for an expedited U.S. visa. A return to Taliban rule was so concerning that he arrived at the airport with his family, bags packed but no visa and no ticket.

The scene in Afghanistan as the Taliban takes control of Kabul

But in many parts of downtown Kabul, Monday passed largely peacefully, a sharp contrast to the airport chaos. Stores were largely shuttered, although a trickle of people were going about their business. Services such as banks and government offices were also closed.

Taliban fighters wove through traffic in pickup trucks bearing the group’s white flag. Some of the fighters set up checkpoints, others posed for photos at the Afghan capital’s most well-known landmarks.

On some streets it appeared that little had changed; women were out in colorful, fashionable clothing. Portraits of anti-Taliban hero Ahmed Shah Massoud were left undefiled, and Afghan national flags remained in place.

Occasionally, Taliban fighters broke up traffic jams by firing angrily in the air. And Kabul’s Green Zone — once home to the heart of Afghan government power — was under a complete lockdown, enforced by fighters, many of them perched on Humvees and other American-made armored vehicles.

“It’s fine, but also not,” said a taxi driver, half-laughing at the militants’ sudden appearance on Kabul’s streets. He has never lived under Taliban rule and said he doesn’t know what to expect of the fighters.

“It’s secure, peaceful, now, but these are Taliban,” he said, implying that they will continue to rule largely by force. Along the street a fighter on a motorcycle took selfies with a group of young men.

In public statements, the Taliban has sought to win the support of Afghan civilians, but in cities the militants have overrun, reports of mass executions and other human rights violations emerged not long after their takeover.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday that U.S. troops have come under fire at least twice at Kabul’s international airport, with preliminary reports that one American may have been wounded.

Kirby said that U.S. troops, working alongside some Turkish forces and other international troops, are working to secure the airfield and civilian side of the airport.

Separately, a U.S. official said the military was assessing the apparent deaths of two people who appeared to have fallen from the airborne C-17.

A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, indicated that the military is taking the video seriously. “That absolutely happened,” the official assessed.

Chaotic footage from Kabul airport was widely circulated on social media and by international news outlets, a stark visual representation of the devastating human impact of the end of a U.S. military campaign that now appeared to be a failure.

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The scramble at Kabul airport has been exacerbated by embassies speeding up withdrawal timelines as the Taliban quickly advanced. The group doubled its territorial hold of the country in the space of three months and toppled Afghanistan’s elected government in a day.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country Sunday to an unnamed neighboring nation. Kabul’s international airport was named after his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who released a video Sunday that showed he was still in Kabul.

In response to Monday’s events, the Afghan Civil Aviation Authority said Monday that all civilian flights in and out of the Kabul airport had been suspended and called on people to not travel to the airport.

The Pentagon and the State Department said in a joint statement Sunday night that about 6,000 troops were authorized to deploy to Afghanistan. But in a sign of how chaotic the situation is, Kirby said Monday that another infantry battalion of about 1,000 soldiers does not change that number, suggesting the previous number was too high.

About 2,500 U.S. troops were on the ground in Kabul as of Monday evening there, Kirby said.

“I don’t know what to do,” said a young Afghan woman also looking for a way out. She fears that Taliban forces will search her home, discover that she is living alone and punish her. Traditional Afghan society generally disapproves of men or women living on their own.

Like many Afghans, she had begun multiple applications for visas in recent months as Taliban gains quickened, but none came through in time. Now, many embassies are either significantly reducing staff or pulling out.

“Where can I go?” she asked.

This report has been updated.

Read more:

International human rights organizations scramble to get local allies out of Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s neighbors watch warily as Taliban completes its dramatic takeover

The Taliban has retaken control of Afghanistan. Here’s what that looked like last time.