Western nations rushed to evacuate people from Afghanistan on Wednesday with less than a week left until all foreign troops leave, acknowledging that many Afghans who helped them will be left behind to an uncertain fate under the Taliban.
Although the airlift is due to last until Tuesday, the United States military said it will shift its focus in the final two days from assisting fleeing civilians to evacuating its own troops.
President Joe Biden has ordered all troops out by the end of the month, spurning pleas from European allies for more time to get people who helped NATO countries in 20 years of war to safety.
In 10 days since the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations ever, bringing out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 in the last 24 hours. The U.S. military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.
Biden, implementing a withdrawal negotiated by his predecessor Donald Trump, said U.S. troops in Afghanistan faced mounting danger if they stayed.
“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Biden said. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”
Aid agencies warned of an impending humanitarian crisis for those left behind.
The Taliban have said foreign troops must be out by the end of the month. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume after the foreign troops go.
Several of Washington’s European allies have acknowledged that they no longer have time to rescue all of the many thousands of Afghans who helped their forces and their diplomatic and aid efforts during two decades of war.
British foreign minister Dominic Raab said the deadline for evacuating people was up to the last minute of the month. France said it would push on with evacuations as long as possible but it was likely to end them in the coming hours or days. Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would try to help Afghans even after the deadline expires.
“The end of the air bridge in a few days must not mean the end of efforts to protect Afghan helpers and help those Afghans who have been left in a bigger emergency with the takeover of the Taliban,” she told the German parliament.
The Netherlands said it was all but certain that many people eligible for asylum would not be taken out in time.
Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul’s airport since the Taliban takeover, the lucky ones securing seats on flights.
On Wednesday, many people milled about outside the airport – where soldiers from the United States, Britain and other nations were trying to maintain order amid the dust and heat.
They carried bags and suitcases stuffed with possessions, and waved documents at soldiers in the hope of gaining entry. One man, standing knee-deep in a flooded ditch, passed a child to a man above.
“I learned from an email from London that the Americans are taking people out, that’s why I’ve come so I can go abroad,” said one man, Aizaz Ullah.
While the focus is now on those trying to flee, the risk of starvation, disease and persecution is rising for the rest of the population, aid agencies say.
“There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by COVID,” David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, told Reuters in Doha, saying that about 14 million people were threatened with starvation.
The U.N. human rights chief said she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taliban, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taliban have said they will investigate reports of atrocities.
The United Nations itself leaves behind around 3,000 Afghan staff at its mission. A U.N. security document reviewed by Reuters described dozens of incidents of threats, the looting of U.N. offices and physical abuse of staff since Aug. 10. Gunmen have come looking for some, others have gone into hiding.
The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions, the curtailment of political rights and basic freedoms curtailed. Women were barred from school or work, and confined to their homes without male chaperones.
Afghanistan was also a hub for anti-Western militants, and Washington, London and others fear it might become so again. The Taliban have said they will respect human rights including those of women, and not allow terrorists to operate from the country.
“Every woman I know has the same fear as I do. What will now happen to our children if we are punished for our work? What will happen to our families? What will they do to us as women?” an Afghan woman who has worked for the United Nations for several years told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The Taliban said all foreign evacuations must be completed by Aug. 31. They have asked the United States to stop urging talented Afghans to leave while also trying to persuade people at the airport to go home, saying they had nothing to fear.
“Foreign troops should withdraw by the deadline. It will pave the way for resumption of civilian flights,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter.
“People with legal documents can travel through commercial flights after Aug. 31.”
The Taliban have asked Turkey to provide help to keep the airport open after foreign troops leave, but have also said no Turkish troops will be permitted to stay. Turkey began evacuating its troops on Wednesday.
The U.S.-backed government collapsed swiftly after Biden withdrew the troops, two decades after they ousted the Taliban in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, planned from Afghan territory by al Qaeda.
The Taliban are switching focus from their military victory to how to run a country in crisis. Key posts are expected to be filled by loyal veterans of their insurgency.
According to Afghanistan’s Pajhwok news agency, the future finance minister will be Gul Agha, who is on international sanctions lists for acting as the insurgents’ financial chief. Al Jazeera news channel reported that the new defense minister will be Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former detainee at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.