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What happened in Afghanistan: What we know about evacuations after Taliban takeover

People carrying Afghanistan’s national flag march in the street in Kabul despite the presence of Taliban fighters around them. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
August 24, 2021

A week after Afghanistan swiftly fell to the Taliban, the U.S. ramped up its effort to evacuate Americans from the country ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline. But a frenzied scene at Kabul’s airport showed no sign of abating, as Afghans tried to escape their new government.

The government’s rapid collapse on Aug. 15 came 20 years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to fight the “war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban regime that the U.S. toppled in 2001 is now back in power.

Crowds of people swarmed the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, creating a chaotic and dangerous situation as they try to board planes to exit the country.

The Biden administration says it has an agreement with the Taliban for the militant group to allow the safe passage of Americans and others to the airport, but there have been reports of the Taliban harassing Americans at checkpoints.

On Sunday, President Joe Biden said the U.S. knows that terrorists — singling out ISIS-K — may seek to exploit the situation at the airport and harm innocent people: “The security situation is changing rapidly,” he said. “We’re under no illusions about the threat.”

Here’s what has happened in Afghanistan in just one week:

How many people have been evacuated?

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that 30,000 people — Americans and Afghan allies — have been evacuated from Afghanistan since late July. Biden said Sunday afternoon that 11,000 people had been airlifted in the last 30 hours.

The Biden administration has said it is unclear how many Americans are in Afghanistan, but the president vowed that any American seeking to return home will be able to do so.

“Let me clear,” Biden said Friday. “Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home.” He made that point again on Sunday.

20 deaths in one week

At least 20 people have been killed in and around the Kabul airport since the Taliban takeover, a NATO official told Reuters. That includes seven people who were killed Sunday.

On Saturday, troops from several nations tried to control the crush of people pressing to get into the airport.

Earlier in the week, thousands of Afghans desperate to flee their besieged country poured onto the runways. At least seven people died in the mayhem just a day afer Afghanistan collapsed.

US commercial airlines joining evacuation efforts

On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin activated civilian planes to help the State Department with its airlift as part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.

The addition of 18 commercial aircraft — from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Omni Air, Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines — is not expected to strain commercial flights, Kirby said. Those planes will not fly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. “They will be used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases,” according to Kirby’s statement.

Biden, military say no one predicted a collapse this fast

Days after the Taliban took Kabul, Biden and the Pentagon said U.S. intelligence did not predict a rapid Afghanistan collapse. “Not even close,” Biden said told ABC News. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “nothing” he saw indicated a collapse of the Afghan army in 11 days.

Yet The Wall Street Journal reported that diplomats in Afghanistan sent a classified memo last month warning Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Kabul could quickly fall after the Aug. 31 U.S. deadline to withdraw.

Biden said last week there was no way to leave Afghanistan “without chaos ensuing.” But on July 8, the president said it was “highly unlikely” exiting Afghanistan would lead to a Taliban takeover.

Taliban vows to uphold rights of women, but White House skeptical

After taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban declared “amnesty” for government officials Tuesday and vowed to uphold women’s rights under Islamic law — a pledge being viewed skeptically.

Prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion, women had virtually had no rights under the fundamentalist Taliban’s oppressive rule. But Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid promised during a news conference last week that the militant group is “committed to the rights of women under the system of sharia (Islamic) law.”

He also said the Taliban was still working to form a government and that “nobody will be harmed.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S.won’t take the group at its word but will watch its actions when it comes to human rights.

“This is not about trust. This is about verify,” Sullivan said.

Why did the Afghan army not put up a fight?

The U.S. pumped more than $80 billion in equipment and training into the Afghan National Security Forces since the start of the war in Afghanistan to enable it to fight off the Taliban, But in the end, it took over with minimal bloodshed.

Biden said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani assured him that the Afghan National Security Forces would fight, but “obviously he was wrong.” He said the Afghan army had the resources to mount a defense but lacked “the will.”

Former military officers who served in Afghanistan said there were signs the Afghan military — unmotivated, disorganized and plagued by low morale — would struggle against the Taliban.

The army had experienced considerable attrition in recent years. Rather than dig in, soldiers calculated they couldn’t defeat the Taliban, experts say. The withdrawal of U.S. military backing, particularly airstrikes, and the Taliban gaining support from Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia, left Afghan forces largely on their own.

Afghan president flees country, capping rapid Taliban takeover

Clinching the takeover, Taliban fighters marched into Kabul on Aug. 15 and sought the unconditional surrender of the central government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban said it would move further into Kabul. As of Aug. 16, he was said to be in the United Arab Emirites.

For years, U.S. and Afghan forces focused on controlling key supply chains and major cities in the country, forcing the Taliban into Afghanistan’s rugged hinterland. The Taliban remained strong in the country’s mountainous rural areas, using those regions as bases of attack to seize territory once US forces began their drawdown.

The Taliban also remained in control of strategic border crossings, allowing them to smuggle weapons and other key goods while also rejuvenating forces outside the country.

At the start of August, the Taliban controlled none of the country’s provincial capitals. Now, they are in possession of most of the country’s territory.

Why was the U.S. in Afghanistan?

The U.S. entered Afghanistan in October 2001, under President George W. Bush, in response to the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York and the Pentagon just outside of Washington.

The U.S. sought the al-Qaida militants who had planned the attack there and received support from the Taliban.

But the U.S. remained in the U.S. for 10 more years after the death of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who was killed in Pakistan during the Obama administration.

Over the 20 years, 2,443 American soldiers died in Afghanistan.

Why did Biden decide to leave now?

Under a deal orchestrated by the Trump administration with the Taliban, the U.S. agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by May 1.

Biden also supported ending what he called “America’s longest war,” and in April he announced plans to withdraw by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Under the plan, America began withdrawing troops in May.

“We delivered justice to bin Laden a decade ago, and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan a decade since then,” Biden said. “Since then, our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.”

The U.S. military presence had decreased to 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan when Biden entered office, down from 15,500 at the beginning of the Trump administration.

Biden said the U.S. has accomplished its main objective of ensuring Afghanistan won’t remain a base from which terrorists can attack the homeland again. He said the U.S. must shift its focus to target terrorism threats that “have become more dispersed and metastasized around the world.”

Biden remains defiant as he takes a hit politically

Despite the botched withdrawal, Biden said the decision to leave Afghanistan was the right call and he’s remaining defiant, saying he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said last Monday. ” After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.

But recent polls have suggested that Biden has taken a hit politically from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, with his job performance falling below 50% in multiple surveys.

“There will be plenty of time to criticize and second-guess when this operation is over. But now — now — I’m focused on getting this job done,” Biden said Friday.

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(c) 2021 USA Today

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