Western nations operating with a skeleton diplomatic presence faced agonizing decisions on Monday as they raced to airlift their own citizens out of Afghanistan while also seeking to evacuate many of the tens of thousands of Afghans who helped them during two decades of war.
But that’s a small fraction of the potential total: Aid groups estimate that the number of Afghan applicants for special immigrant visas (SIV), as well as their family members, is 80,000. The Pentagon said Monday that it had prepared to bring 22,000 SIV recipients to the United States, where they will be temporarily housed on military bases. Officials acknowledged that total could rise.
“We’re going to be as aggressive as we can in moving as many people as we can,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, who described the need to provide refuge to former translators and other Afghans who assisted the United States as “a sacred obligation.”
Kirby said the military hopes to have the capacity to evacuate as many as 5,000 people per day, with a fast-approaching deadline of Aug. 31 for the United States to withdraw its troops.
Monday was not an auspicious start: With diplomats from the United States and allied nations relocated to the airport after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, chaos unfolded, including desperate Afghans clinging onto departing aircraft, several people shot to death and a mad scramble for available seats.
There were fears of worse to come. It was unclear how long Western governments would be able to continue evacuations, given security threats. In an interview that aired on British radio on Monday, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace grew emotional as he indicated not everyone would be able to escape on evacuation flights.
“Some people won’t get back,” said Wallace, a former captain in the British army.
President Biden said the scenes of fleeing Afghans were “gut-wrenching” but that the Afghan government was partially responsible for a slow U.S. evacuation. The government was fearful that a mass exodus would create a “crisis of confidence,” Biden told reporters in remarks at the White House. The president also said some Afghans didn’t “want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country.”
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, disputed that, saying her organization was still in touch with Afghans who had been desperate to leave Afghanistan for months but had struggled with a backlog in processing visas and other issues.
“[Some] are in Kabul and trying to figure out whether to shelter in place or travel to the airport, some in now-Taliban-controlled provinces who are hiding in their home, but all of whom are desperate to seek safety in U.S. territory,” said O’Mara Vignarajah.
Many Western governments are trying to help not only their own diplomats leave the country, but also citizens left in Afghanistan as well as Afghan nationals who had worked with their nation. However, with commercial flights at the airport suspended on Monday, and military flights only resuming in the early hours of Tuesday, there were accusations that Afghans are a lower priority.
“The problem is less issuing visas for desperate Afghans as much as finding space for them on a plane,” said one European official. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deteriorating security environment.
Western governments have struggled to coordinate an evacuation response as media organizations, nongovernmental organizations and defense firms attempt to secure flights for their own staffs. German, French and American missions will try to evacuate their own nationals first, creating anxiety and confusion about who will ultimately get out of the country, the official said.
The United States had moved “all embassy personnel” to the airport as of late Sunday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, and would be accelerating the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for SIV, 2,000 of whom have already arrived in the United States over the past two weeks.
A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III that left Kabul late Sunday was filled with hundreds of Afghan civilians hanging onto cargo straps on the floor, according to photographs shared by the publication Defense One, which said 640 civilians were on board.
About 300 British passport holders managed to depart Afghanistan on Sunday, Wallace told BBC on Monday. Wallace said the embassy expects to help roughly another 1,500 people leave in the coming days.
Germany’s defense ministry had dispatched two military planes to Kabul to make airlifts to Tashkent, the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan, the Defense Ministry said on Monday. The evacuees would then be picked up by civilian aircraft.
According to reports in the German press, Chancellor Angela Merkel told her party leadership on Monday that up to 10,000 people may be evacuated, including 2,500 Afghans who had been working with Germany and a further 2,000 that included human rights activists and others who may be in danger.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Monday that several transport planes have been sent to the United Arab Emirates, where they will regroup before heading to Kabul for an evacuation mission.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday that diplomats had helped to evacuate at least 807 Afghans, including 500 people who have already arrived in the country. The country had previously said it would resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees, including women leaders and LGBT activists.
Trudeau said Canadian soldiers remain in Afghanistan and were helping to secure the airport. All embassy staff have been evacuated, he added, and resettlement applications for Afghan nationals are being processed remotely.
Other nations could do the same.
“Everything depends on the security of the airport. If it gets much worse, the ambassadors and the rest of their staff will get out,” said another European official familiar with the situation.
Taliban officials have said that foreigners will not be in danger after they assume control. “We assure all embassies, diplomatic missions, institutions and residences of foreign nationals in Kabul that there is no danger to them,” Mohammad Naeem, the official spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, wrote on Twitter.
But after two decades of often brutal conflict, few are sure what to expect from a group known for its violent punishments and severe restrictions on women’s rights.
As the Taliban advanced across the country over recent weeks, following the exit of U.S. troops, some countries had issued guidance for their citizens to leave the country as soon as possible.
Many Western governments, including the United States, had began to accelerate programs to relocate Afghans who had interpreted for foreign troops and others who might be at risk of reprisal. But the speed of the Taliban’s advance on Kabul took nearly everyone by surprise.
After Australia sent 250 defense personnel to help Afghans seeking to leave the country, a former Australian defense chief said that the government had waited too long to get people out.
“I have read a litany of reasons why this was going to take weeks, months and years and people were having to be processed. Now we find the very ugly truth that we’ve just left it far too late,” Chris Barrie told ABC News.
Loveday Morris in Berlin, Rick Noack in Paris and Jennifer Hassan in London contributed to this report.