Western Allies Scramble to Evacuate Citizens, Afghans from Kabul as Tensions Rise
Western allies are increasing efforts to evacuate citizens and Afghans amidst rising tensions in Kabul this week. More than 5,000 U.S. troops are at the Kabul airport to aid in the evacuation effort, and European countries are pledging to evacuate individuals at special risk from the Taliban—feminists, political activists, and journalists.
“Dozens of flights already have brought hundreds of Western nationals and Afghan workers to safety in Europe since the Taliban captured the capital of Kabul,” the Associated Press reported. “Those lucky enough to be rescued from feared reprisals have mostly been Afghans who worked directly with foreign missions, along with their families.”
The US military transport aircraft shown in a now-iconic photograph jam-packed with Afghans fleeing the country's Taliban takeover held a record 823 passengers, the Pentagon said Fridayhttps://t.co/rcJH1KN7ey— AFP News Agency (@AFP) August 20, 2021
AP continued: “Yet still unprotected are untold numbers who worked with aid groups and other nongovernmental organizations in the fledgling democracy. Also included are those who assisted U.S. and NATO forces and are now stranded and being hunted by the Taliban. Many are deleting contacts with the West from their phones, or memorizing key numbers to maintain contact.”
European forces, meanwhile, have crossed Taliban lines outside of the Kabul airport to rescue civilians and bring them to safety.
“Earlier this week, an elite team of French police officers entered the capital’s Green Zone, where French nationals and vulnerable Afghans were sheltering on the grounds of the country’s embassy,” The Washington Post reported. “They transported the people to Kabul airport for evacuation, the police confirmed.”
Germany also said it plans to dispatch helicopters on Saturday to reach individuals in need of evacuation. The decisions by its European allies are placing increasing pressure on the United States to advance beyond the airport to aid in the evacuation effort, as well as speed up its visa process for Afghans who may be targeted by the Taliban.
Afghan soldiers and security personnel have also gone on the run or are in hiding to avoid persecution, including taking refuge in the Panshir Valley north of Kabul.
“Thousands surrendered as the Taliban rolled through the country, laying down their weapons after being promised they would not be harmed,” The New York Times reported. “The Taliban so far appears to have stuck with those deals—historically a common feature of Afghan warfare—and the militants seemed far more focused on the 18,000 Army commandos, many of whom did not surrender, and officers from the country’s spy service, the National Directorate of Security.”
The Taliban has attempted to persuade the world that it will take a new approach in Afghanistan, including allowing women to have roles in society and offering amnesty to those who worked with the United States and others during the war—similar to an approach the group offered in 1996 when it took control of Afghanistan for the first time.
“That the rebrand is winning even the slightest traction is an astonishing turnaround for a murderous regime that previously excluded women from public life and destroyed cultural heritage like the Bamiyan Buddhas,” Politico reported. “Watch the Twitter and other social media content that the Taliban are now producing, and that dark age is all behind them. After entering Kabul, the militants posted videos and photos presenting their fighters as ordinary, approachable people: working out, eating ice cream, and looking good.”
The social media content also contrasts reporting on the ground in Afghanistan that the Taliban has mounted targeted killings of nine ethnic Hazara men in the Ghazni province. Hazaras are Shiite Muslims that were persecuted by the Taliban in the past.
A United Nations threat assessment report obtained by AFP added to these fears. The United Nations said the Taliban was conducting “targeted door-to-door visits” for people who worked with U.S. and NATO forces.
Threat assessment from UN warns Taliban is intensifying a search for people who worked with US & NATO forces and is going “door to door” to find them.— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) August 20, 2021
🔴 Follow this thread for the latest update ⤵ https://t.co/K8BWRxPQAy
“They are targeting the families of those who refuse to give themselves up, and prosecuting and punishing their families ‘according to Sharia law,’” said Christian Nellemann, executive director of the Norwegian Center for Global Analyses that wrote the report for the United Nations.
Amnesty International has warned that more killings may have gone unreported because the Taliban cut cellphone service in areas under its control, the Associated Press reports. Reporters without Borders has also raised the alarm after a family member of an Afghan journalist working for Deutsche Welle was killed by the Taliban.
Media outlets have been working to evacuate their journalists, their families, and their Afghan associates through the Kabul airport. The New York Times worked with the government of Qatar to evacuate 128 people; Times foreign correspondent Thomas Gibbons-Neff flew back to Kabul on a U.S. military plane to advise his colleagues on how to get to the airport to escape.
“News outlets remain focused on aiding the Afghans whose employment in some cases stretches back decades,” according to the Times. “Some are holed up in cities outside Kabul, unable to travel to the airport or pass Taliban checkpoints. The Kabul airport itself remains inundated by waves of Afghans seeking flights out of the country, with Taliban forces blocking various points of entry.
“Overnight on Thursday, employees of The Times and their relatives made another attempt to reach the airport. At first turned away by teeming crowds and guards at a Taliban checkpoint, the group eventually found an open entryway, according to the three people briefed on the events.”
While people are attempting to flee Afghanistan, fears have been raised about the technology and military assets that the Taliban may have obtained as it took control of the country, including biometric devices that could aid in identifying Afghans.
The U.S. didn’t only collect information about criminals and terrorists; the government appears to also have been collecting biometrics from Afghans assisting diplomatic efforts, in addition to those working with the military. https://t.co/WIwJ81faxF— The Intercept (@theintercept) August 19, 2021
“The devices, known as HIIDE, for Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, were seized last week during the Taliban’s offensive, according to a Joint Special Operations Command official and three former U.S. military personnel,” the Intercept reported. “HIIDE devices contain identifying biometric data such as iris scans and fingerprints, as well as biographical information, and are used to access large, centralized databases. It’s unclear how much of the U.S. military’s biometric database on the Afgan population has been compromised.”
The Taliban has also claimed M4 and M16 rifles, M24 sniper rifle systems, M2 .50 caliber machine guns, night vision goggles, radios, magazine pouches, and military vehicles—including Humvees and MRAPs—that were likely obtained from the Afghan Army. Many of these assets are similar to those that the United States provided funding for to support the army.
A Task & Purpose analysis of U.S. Government Accountability Office reports found that the U.S. military “transferred roughly 75,898 vehicles, 599,690 weapons systems, and 208 aircraft to the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] between fiscal years 2003 and 2016.”