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Chaos persists at Kabul airport, imperiling Afghanistan evacuation effort

U.S. and Afghan forces at Kabul airport on Aug. 19, held back crowds attempting to flee Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover. (Video: The Washington Post)
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KABUL — A chaotic and dangerous dynamic at Kabul's airport showed few signs of relenting Thursday as thousands of people attempting to board flights faced beatings by Taliban guards, the crush of heaving crowds and interminable spells in the dust and heat while waiting to escape Afghanistan.

The daily mayhem at the airport — a fixture since the Taliban takeover Sunday — has stoked criticism that the Biden administration was slow to try to get Americans and their allies out, while underscoring fears about how the militants will rule the country.

Several people said Thursday they had received confusing signals from the United States about how exactly they were supposed to leave, citing emails from the State Department urging them to go the airport, only to find there was no one to receive them or to answer their questions on how to board flights.

“We arrived at 6 a.m.,” said a 39-year-old librarian, a dual U.S.-Afghan citizen, who came with his wife and two children after receiving an email invitation from the State Department. “From 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., the gate did not open, and there is no person to address our concerns.”

At one point as he waited, the man, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution, said he was whipped by a Taliban fighter.

The chaos at the airport came as Afghans marked their traditional independence day, with small but determined groups of demonstrators waving the country’s red, black and green national flag as they marched through Kabul. Such protests have emerged as an early challenge to the Taliban, who fly their own white banner.

“Our flag, our identity,” the marchers chanted in videos posted online. In Asadabad, a provincial capital in the east, several people were killed during a rally Thursday, Reuters reported, quoting a witness. The agency said it was not clear whether the casualties resulted from firing by militants or a stampede.

The Taliban marked the day — which recognizes the anniversary of the country’s 1919 independence from Britain — by gloating over having “forced another arrogant power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan.”

While Taliban officials have made conciliatory gestures since the group took power — with promises of respect for press freedom and women’s rights, as well as an assurance that they will not engage in retribution — there were fresh signs Thursday that they won’t keep their word.

The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said a close relative of one of its journalists had been killed by Taliban fighters. The relative was shot as militants went house to house searching for the journalist in western Afghanistan, the news organization said.

Such searches were also being conducted to track down former Afghan security officials and people who may have worked with U.S. or NATO forces, according to a confidential threat assessment prepared for the United Nations and seen by The Washington Post on Thursday.

Taliban militants are going house to house, setting up checkpoints and threatening to arrest or kill relatives of “collaborators” in major cities, the assessment said.

The document, produced by the Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, a U.N.-linked intelligence support center, and dated Wednesday, describes an empowered Taliban eager to seek out and interrogate or punish those affiliated with the U.S.-backed government.

At particular risk are people who were in central positions in military, police and investigative units, according to the analysis, despite a Taliban pledge this week to grant amnesty to former officials.

The fighters are using the West’s focus on evacuating foreign nationals to “search unrestrained for Afghan targets inside the cities,” the document said. The group is also screening for individuals outside the Kabul airport, the report said.

That peril explains why people have been so desperate to leave the country, with the Kabul airport serving as one of the only viable paths out.

But would-be passengers and people involved in the evacuation effort say a terrifying gantlet awaits those trying to take the flights, one that has left people traumatized, dehydrated and in some cases injured, either by Taliban fighters or U.S. soldiers.

Figures provided by U.S. officials show departures are gaining pace but that the evacuation is operating below its intended capacity, reflecting the difficulty for people of just making it to the planes.

Pentagon says its still evacuating only 2000 people a day from Kabul

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. military could be evacuating 5,000 to 9,000 people per day from Afghanistan — as soon as it has that many people approved each day for departure. But in the last 24-hour period, only slightly more than 2,000 people — including almost 300 Americans — made it out of Kabul safely, flying out on 12 C-17 aircraft.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday the department has processed a group of 6,000 people who will soon board planes.

Asked about people being prevented from reaching the airport, he said, “Every report of someone unable for whatever reason to reach the airport is something we take very seriously.”

Protests, empty coffers and isolation pose challenges to Taliban

Kirby said Thursday that a deal reached with the Taliban to provide safe passage to American citizens into the airport was working. But there were numerous reports to the contrary.

Since April, the Biden administration has given no fewer than a half dozen explanations for the slow withdrawal of Afghan allies from Afghanistan. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

One former U.S. official familiar with the issue said the Taliban appeared to be adjusting the location of its checkpoints outside the airport based on which gates the United States opens. Several people said gunfire was constant around the airport, as Taliban fighters fired into the air to control crowds or in some cases shot at people.

In one case Wednesday, a U.S. green card holder and her young children with U.S. citizenship and passports were injured in the chaos after they were denied entry at the airport, two former U.S. officials said. They were denied access for a second time hours later and are now back in hiding, said the former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Afghans arriving at the airport have also been turned away by U.S. troops, sometimes aggressively, said Sam Lerman, an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan and is attempting to help Afghans depart. He described one Afghan getting hit in the face by a U.S. service member with the stock of a rifle.

An Afghan American who earned his U.S. citizenship after years of working with coalition forces in Afghanistan said he had gone to the airport twice this week in an attempt to leave the country with his family. He found chaos both times, and no one willing or able to help.

“I know they’re overwhelmed with a lot of people, but I couldn’t go inside to talk to them,” said the man, who added that he was afraid he will be spotted talking to Americans at the gate.

“They’re searching house to house and trying to find the people who were defense contractors or interpreters or worked with coalition forces,” he said of the Taliban. “And if they don’t find them, they are killing their families.”

A reporter who visited the airport around 5 a.m. Thursday saw only a few hundred people gathered there. Two hours later, the crowds were starting to swell. By noon there were thousands, said the librarian, who said he had been in Kabul for a little less than a month before the Taliban takeover, visiting family.

At one point, he said, Taliban fighters started shooting into the air and the crowds thinned. Then the militants started beating people. The librarian’s children started vomiting.

“Today’s situation makes me feel the U.S. does not care about me and my children,” he said. “I feel the U.S. government left us alone.”

Lamothe reported from Washington and Fahim from Istanbul. Erin Cunningham in Istanbul, Karoun Demirjian, Ruby Mellen and John Hudson in Washington and Claire Parker in Billings, Mont., contributed to this report.

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