Afghan evacuation on ‘war footing’ as G7 meets on Taliban deadline
Air passengers evacuated from Afghanisgan arrive at a military airport in Melsbroek, Belgium, on Tuesday. Photograph: Eric Lalmand/Belga/AFP via Getty Images
Western forces at Kabul airport worked flat out on Tuesday to get people out of Afghanistan before an August 31st deadline, as US president Joe Biden faced growing pressure to negotiate more time for the airlift of thousands of stranded people.
Widespread chaos punctuated by sporadic violence has gripped Kabul’s airport, with Western troops and Afghan security guards driving back crowds desperate to flee following the Taliban’s take over of the Afghan capital on August 15th.
Countries that have evacuated some 50,000 people over the past 10 days are trying to meet the deadline agreed earlier with the Taliban for the withdrawal of foreign forces, a Nato diplomat said.
“Every foreign force member is working at a war-footing pace to meet the deadline,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) countries – Britain, Canada, France Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States – will meet virtually on Tuesday to discuss the crisis.
Mr Biden, who has said US troops might stay beyond the deadline, has warned the evacuation was going to be “hard and painful” and much could still go wrong.
Democratic US congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, told reporters after a briefing on Afghanistan by intelligence officials that he did not believe the evacuation could be completed in the eight days remaining.
“I think it’s possible but I think it’s very unlikely given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated,” Schiff said.
A Taliban official said on Monday an extension would not be granted, though he said foreign forces had not sought one. Washington said negotiations were continuing. British prime minister Boris Johnson said ahead of the G7 meeting: “I will ask our friends and allies to stand by the Afghan people and step up support for refugees and humanitarian aid.”
“The Taliban will be judged by their deeds and not their words,” he said on Twitter.
Britain’s defence secretary, Ben Wallace, told Sky News he was doubtful there would be an extension “not only because of what the Taliban has said but also if you look at the public statements of President Biden, I think it is unlikely”.
Many Afghans fear reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law that the Taliban enforced while in power from 1996 to 2001, in particular the repression of women and freedom of speech.
UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet said she had received credible reports of serious violations committed by the Taliban, including summary executions of civilians and restrictions on women and on protests against their rule.
Nevertheless, thousands of Afghans have returned to their homes in the provinces after learning that the situation there was “relatively calm”, said the Nato diplomat, while cautioning that scant intelligence and security reports were coming in from remote districts.
Australia evacuated more than 50 female Afghan Paralympians, athletes and their dependents after securing visas for them, the Australian Broadcasting Corp reported on Tuesday.
The G7 leaders could discuss taking a united stand on the question of whether to recognise a Taliban government, or alternatively renew sanctions to pressure the Islamist militant movement to comply with pledges to respect women’s rights and international relations.
“The G7 leaders will agree to co-ordinate on if, or when to recognise the Taliban,” said one European diplomat. “And they will commit to continue to work closely together.”
Leaders of the Taliban, who have sought to show a more moderate face since capturing Kabul, have begun talks on forming a government, that have included discussions with some old enemies from past governments, including a former president, Hamid Karzai.
The Pajhwok news agency reported that Taliban officials had been appointed to various posts including a governor of Kabul, acting interior and finance ministers and intelligence chief. A Taliban spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Recognition of a Taliban government by other countries would have important consequences, like allowing the Taliban access to foreign aid that previous Afghan governments have depended upon.
Mr Biden will face pressure from other leaders to extend the August 31st deadline for evacuations. France has said more time is needed, and German foreign minister Heiko Maas said on Monday the G7 needed to consider whether to remain beyond that date.
Mr Biden has faced widespread criticism over the withdrawal, which was initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, under a deal struck with the Taliban, and his opinion poll ratings have slipped.
For its part, the powerful U.S. military has been grappling with the collapse of US-backed Afghan forces after 20 years of training. “Was it worth it? Yes. Does it still hurt? Yes,” Gen David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, wrote in a memo to Marines. – Reuters