The Taliban have agreed to allow “safe passage” from Afghanistan for civilians struggling to join a US-directed airlift from the capital, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser said on Tuesday.
However, a timetable for completing the evacuation of Americans, Afghan allies and others has yet to be worked out with the country’s new rulers.
Jake Sullivan acknowledged reports some civilians were encountering resistance — “being turned away or pushed back or even beaten” — as they tried to reach the Kabul international airport.
But he said “very large numbers” were reaching the airport and the problem of the others was being taken up with the Taliban, whose stunningly swift takeover of the country on Sunday plunged the US evacuation effort into chaos, confusion and violence.
The White House said 13 flights on Tuesday airlifted 1,100 US citizens, permanent residents and their families from Kabul airport, adding that the pace was expected to pick up through the week.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said US officers were speaking with Taliban commanders “multiple times a day” about avoiding conflict at the airport. This suggested the new rulers of Afghanistan, who swept to power after 20 years of war against the US-supported Kabul government, do not plan to disrupt the evacuation.
Mr Kirby would not discuss details of the Taliban arrangement, and Mr Sullivan said the question of how much time the Taliban would give the evacuation was still being negotiated.
Mr Biden has said he wants the evacuation completed by August 31. Mr Sullivan declined to say whether that deadline would hold.
General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command and overall commander of U.S. troops in Kabul, made an unannounced visit to the Afghan capital Tuesday. In a written statement, he said he found that military air traffic controllers and ground handlers were “rapidly scaling up” airlift operations.
“I cautioned them against interference in our evacuation, and made it clear to them that any attack would be met with overwhelming force in the defence of our forces,” General McKenzie said.
“The protection of US civilians and our partners is my highest priority and we will take all necessary action to ensure a safe and efficient withdrawal.”
At the White House, Mr Sullivan said US officials were engaged in an “hour by hour” process of holding the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the country.
Asked whether the Biden administration recognised the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, Mr Sullivan said it was too soon to say and that the Taliban’s record of adhering to international human rights standards “has not been good”.
Overnight at the airport, nine Air Force C-17 transport planes arrived with equipment and about 1,000 troops, and seven C-17s took off with 700-800 civilian evacuees, including 165 Americans, Army Major General William Taylor told a Pentagon news conference. The total included Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas and third-country nationals, he said.
Major General Taylor said more than 4,000 US troops were now at the airport. That number is expected to top 6,000 in coming days — more than twice as many as in all of Afghanistan when Mr Biden announced in April he would be ending the US war and pulling out all troops.
On Monday the airlift had been temporarily suspended when Afghans desperate to escape the country breeched security and rushed onto the tarmac. Seven people died in several incidents.
The Air Force said Tuesday that its Office of Special Investigations is investigating an incident Monday in which a C-17 transport plane taking off from Kabul airport was swarmed by desperate Afghan civilians, some of whom died. The Air Force said human remains were found in the plane’s wheel well when it landed in Qatar.
Mr Kirby said US commanders at the airport were in direct communication with Taliban commanders outside to avoid security incidents.
He said there have been no hostile actions by the Taliban, and that several hundred members of the now-defeated Afghan army were at the airport assisting in the evacuation.