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Thursday, October 28, 2021

US urges Americans to avoid Kabul airport amid security concerns including Isis threats

After the US advised Americans in Afghanistan to avoid traveling to Kabul airport on Saturday, a Pentagon spokesman said the US had “a whole panoply of security concerns” around efforts to evacuate its citizens and Afghan allies. Another official said the Islamic State group was threatening to attack Americans in Afghanistan.

Thousands are still trying to flee, a week after the Taliban took control of the country.

The White House said Joe Biden discussed the security situation and counterterrorism operations, including against Isis in Afghanistan, with his national security team.

Vice-president Kamala Harris joined the meeting by video from Singapore. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also attended, as did the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin; Gen Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser; and Avirl Haines, the national intelligence director.

Speaking anonymously, a senior US official told the Associated Press that Isis threats against Americans were forcing the military to develop new ways to get evacuees to the Kabul airport. The official said small groups of Americans and possibly other civilians would be given specific instructions, including movement to transit points where they can be gathered up by the military.

Officials declined to provide more specifics about the Isis threat but described it as significant. They said there have been no confirmed attacks yet.

At a Pentagon briefing, spokesman John Kirby said he would not “detail threat assessments with the intelligence” but said the area around the airport was “very fluid and very dynamic”.

“What I would tell you is that we continue to have regular communication with Taliban leaders … particularly those that are manning or in charge of the checkpoints around the airport, that communication and deconfliction occurs.”

Kirby also said there was “a lot less visibility farther out into the city, and that’s possibly where there might be threats of kidnapping or … what really we’re trying to avoid here. There’s a lot, there’s a whole panoply of security concerns that we have.”

The US embassy advisory against traveling to the airport came after Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar arrived in Kabul.

“Because of potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport, we are advising US citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a US government representative to do so,” the advisory said.

Officials have indicated that thousands of US citizens are still in Afghanistan. Maj Gen Hank Taylor, with the Joint Staff, told reporters on Saturday there had been periods when gates to Kabul airport were closed but said three to four main gates were open. He also said 2,500 US citizens had been evacuated to date.

“The gates are always manned by forces there that can process the right people that come to those gates, all the time,” he said.

Taylor said six US C-17 planes and 32 charter flights with 3,800 passengers had left in the last 24 hours, a smaller number than in previous days. Three flights had landed at Dulles airport near Washington, he said, with thousands of people relocated to Fort Bliss in Texas for processing.

At least 12 people have been killed in and around the airfield, Nato and Taliban officials said. On Saturday, Switzerland postponed a charter flight. A government statement said: “A large number of people … and sometimes violent confrontations are hindering access to the airport.” Taylor said there had been “no reported change to the current enemy situation” outside the airport.

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Kirby said the US “knew of a small number of cases where some Americans and Afghans we want to evacuate have been harassed and in some cases beaten”, as indicated by the defense secretary, Austin, on Friday, a comment seized upon by Republicans in attacks on Biden.

“We don’t believe it is a very large number … By and large, most Americans who have their credentials with them are being allowed through Taliban checkpoints and onto the gate and airfield,” Kirby said.

“We’ve certainly made our concerns known, and I think equally frustrating is the fact that what appears to be happening is that not every Taliban fighter either got the word or decided to obey the word.”

Austin was not considering resigning, he said.

The Taliban have said they want peace. Afghans and international groups have reported harsh retaliation against protests and round-ups of those who formerly held government positions, criticised the Taliban or worked with Americans. Former officials have told of hiding as gunmen go from door to door. One family described running to the bathroom, lights off and children’s mouths covered, in fear for their lives.

Chaos at Kabul airport last week as people try to flee the country.
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“We have heard of some cases of atrocities and crimes against civilians,” a Taliban official told Reuters, on condition of anonymity. “If [members of the Taliban] are doing these law and order problems, they will be investigated. We can understand the panic, stress and anxiety. People think we will not be accountable, but that will not be the case.”

The official said the group planned to ready a new model for governing, with teams to tackle security and finance.

“Experts from the former government will be brought in for crisis management,” the official said, adding that Afghanistan would not be a democracy by western definitions but would “protect everyone’s rights”.

Baradar, the chief of the Taliban’s political office, was part of negotiations with the US in Qatar. He was captured in 2010 and released in 2018.

On Friday, Biden confronted criticism about the US withdrawal.

“I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies,” Biden said. “As a matter of fact, the exact opposite … we’re acting with dispatch, we’re acting, committing to what we said we would do.”

On Saturday, Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said: “We’re fighting against both time and space. That’s the race that we’re in right now. And we’re trying to do this as quickly and safely as possible.”

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