WASHINGTON (AP) – The Taliban have agreed to allow civilians struggling to join a US-led airlift from the capital “safe passage” from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser said, despite a schedule for Completion of the evacuation of Americans, Afghan allies and others have yet to be worked out with the country’s new rulers.
Jake Sullivan confirmed reports Tuesday that some civilians encountered resistance – “turned away or pushed back or even beaten” – as they tried to get into Kabul International Airport. But he said “a great many” reached the airport and the problem of the others would be taken up with the Taliban, whose surprisingly quick takeover of the country on Sunday plunged US evacuation efforts into chaos, confusion and violence.
Pentagon officials said the airlift was back on track after being interrupted on Monday and will be accelerated in regular communication with Taliban leaders despite weather problems. More US troops arrived and others were on the way, and a total of more than 6,000 will be involved in securing the airport in the coming days.
The White House said 13 flights flew 1,100 U.S. citizens, permanent residents and their families from Kabul Airport on Tuesday.
The State Department said it was sending John Bass, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, to lead the evacuation operation in Kabul, and the Pentagon said it would take command of Army Major Christopher Donohue, a special operations officer and current commander of the 82nd Division Take security measures at the airport.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby announced that US officers spoke to Taliban commanders “several times a day” about avoiding conflicts at the airport. This indicated that Afghanistan’s new rulers, who came to power after 20 years of war against the US-backed Kabul government, plan not to disrupt the evacuation. Kirby would not talk about details of the Taliban deal, and Sullivan said how much time the Taliban would give to evacuate was still being negotiated.
Biden said he wanted the evacuation to be completed by August 31. Sullivan declined to say whether that deadline would be met.
General Frank McKenzie, Chief of the US Central Command and Commander in Chief of US Forces in Kabul, paid an unannounced visit to the Afghan capital on Tuesday. In a written statement, he said he found that military air traffic controllers and groundhandlers were “rapidly expanding” airlift operations.
McKenzie negotiated the safe passage agreement with the Taliban leaders during talks in Doha, Qatar on Sunday.
“I warned them not to interfere in our evacuation and made it clear to them that any attack would be answered with overwhelming force in defense of our armed forces,” McKenzie said. “The protection of US civilians and our partners is my top priority and we will take all necessary measures to ensure a safe and efficient withdrawal.”
At the White House, Sullivan said US officials were involved “hour by hour” in keeping the Taliban on its promise to allow safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the country. When asked whether the Biden government recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan, Sullivan said it was too early to say so and that the Taliban’s record of adhering to international human rights standards “was not good”.
Overnight, nine Air Force C-17 transport planes arrived at the airport with equipment and about 1,000 soldiers, and seven C-17s took off with 700-800 evacuated civilians, including 165 Americans, Army Major William Taylor told Pentagon News conference. The total included Afghans who applied for special immigrant visas and third-country nationals, he said.
The goal is to ramp up to one evacuation flight an hour by Wednesday, with 5,000 to 9,000 evacuees leaving per day, Taylor and Kirby said. Taylor said there are now more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers at the airport. That number is expected to exceed 6,000 in the coming days – more than twice as many as in all of Afghanistan when Biden announced in April that he would end the US war and withdraw all troops.
The airlift was temporarily suspended on Monday when Afghans desperate to flee the country broke security and fell on the tarmac. Seven people died in several incidents. The Air Force announced Tuesday that its Office of Special Investigations is investigating an incident on Monday in which a C-17 transport plane taking off from Kabul airport was inundated by desperate Afghan civilians, some of whom died. According to the Air Force, human remains were found in the wheel arch of the plane when it landed in Qatar.
Kirby said US commanders at the airport are in direct communication with Taliban commanders outside to avoid security incidents.
He said there had been no hostile action by the Taliban and that several hundred members of the defeated Afghan army were at the airport helping with the evacuation.
Kirby said in television interviews that plans were being made to house up to 22,000 evacuated Afghans and their families in three U.S. Army facilities in the continental United States. These locations are Camp McCoy, Wisconsin; Fort Bliss, Texas; and Fort Lee, Virginia.
Biden returned to the White House from the presidential retreat at Camp David on Tuesday night. On Monday, he had denied guilt for chaotic scenes of Afghans clinging to U.S. military planes in Kabul after the Taliban’s easy victory over an Afghan military that America and NATO allies had been trying to rebuild for two decades to flee their homeland.
Biden described the anguish of the trapped Afghan civilians as “heartbreaking” and admitted that the Taliban had achieved a much faster takeover of the country than his government had expected. The US stormed troops to protect its own evacuating diplomats and others at Kabul airport.
But the president expressed no concern about his decision to uphold the U.S. commitment made during the Trump administration to definitely end America’s longest war.
“I am fully behind my decision” to finally withdraw the US combat troops, said Biden.
Associated Press Writers Darlene Superville, Matthew Lee, Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.
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