Update: Just when it seemed that things may be stabilizing at the Kabul Airport, Biden's National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on CNN's State of the Union that the U.S. is placing "paramount priority" on defending crowds at Kabul airport seeking to leave Afghanistan against a potential Islamic State terrorist attack.
“The threat is real, it is acute, it is persistent and it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal,” Sullivan said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “We are working hard with our intelligence community to try to isolate and determine where an attack might come from.” In Kabul, U.S. commanders “have a wide variety of capabilities that they are using to defend the airfield against a potential terrorist attack,” he said. “We are taking it absolutely, deadly seriously.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan on the threat of ISIS attacking the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan: "The threat is real. It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal." https://t.co/XDgiI0kiQU #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/Fg9D0MVUmx— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) August 22, 2021
In a stunning follow up, Blinken then said that leaving Americans get to the Kabul airport on their own is "the best way to do this."
Blinken: Leaving Americans to get to the Kabul airport on their own is “the best way to do this.” pic.twitter.com/8Ocom7JsgL— Arthur Schwartz (@ArthurSchwartz) August 22, 2021
Sullivan's comment follows a report from CNN that the US military is establishing "alternative routes" to Kabul airport because of an ISIS terror threat to the airport and its surroundings. "There is a strong possibility ISIS-K is trying to carry off an attack at the airport," a US defense official told CNN. A senior diplomat in Kabul said they are aware of a credible but not immediate threat by Islamic State against Americans at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Two US defense officials described to CNN the military effort to establish "alternative routes" for people to get to Kabul airport and its access gates, with one saying these new routes will be available to Americans, third party nationals and qualified Afghans. The Taliban are aware of the new effort and are coordinating with the US, one of the officials said.
The report goes on to say that the Pentagon - which was "stunned" by the Taliban's blitz takeover of the country but apparently now is on top of ISIS terror chatter - has been monitoring the situation around the airport, aware that the swelling crowds on the grounds and around the airfield create a target for ISIS-K (referring to Islamic State Khorasan, the Islamic State's affiliate in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and other organizations, which may use car bombs or suicide bombers to attack, the second official said. Mortar attacks are another possible threat.
The broadly sketched-out details call for people to follow new routes and access points in coordination with Taliban on the ground in an attempt to help disperse the gathering of large crowds or avoid the crowds altogether. US personnel would be in a position to observe the movement of people to ensure safety, but the official would not specify if that involves direct observation by nearby troops as well as the use of intelligence sensors.
"There's a whole canopy of security concerns we have," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said at a press briefing Saturday, as he described the military "fighting against both time and space" in its effort to safely evacuate people.
Separately, Biden has been meeting with his national security team on Sunday morning and has scheduled a news conference on topics including Afghanistan for 4 p.m. in Washington. The president will hold a virtual meeting with other Group of Seven leaders on Tuesday to coordinate evacuations and discuss humanitarian aid for Afghan refugees, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
As reported earlier, overnight the Defense Department ordered U.S. airlines to provide 18 planes to transport evacuees, saying the extra capacity will help military aircraft focus on operations in and out of Kabul. Activation of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program involves four planes from United Airlines, three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air and two from Hawaiian Airlines, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Sunday.
The activated aircraft won’t fly into the Kabul airport, site of chaotic scenes as people desperate to leave the Afghan capital have been reduced to desperation. Instead, they’ll be used for onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases, Kirby said. It was unclear how providing more aircraft will resolve an evacuation whose bottleneck is ensuring airport access to those who wish to flee.
The U.S. and its allies airlifted a combined 7,800 people out of Kabul in the latest 24-hour period, Sullivan said. Some 25,000 people have been evacuated since Aug. 14, he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” While the U.S. has sufficient forces on the ground, Biden asks his commanders “every single day” whether they might need more resources, Sullivan said. Several thousand U.S. citizens are still believed to be in Afghanistan, though it’s hard to determine a more exact number, Sullivan said.
* * *
As the world awaits for what the US president will do next over the botched evacuation of US citizens in Afghanistan, with a press conference scheduled for 4pm on Sunday, things at the makeshift US "embassy" at the Kabul remain deadly tense.
According to Reuters, the Taliban fired in the air and used batons to make people line up in orderly queues outside Kabul airport on Sunday, witnesses said, a day the Britain's defense ministry said seven Afghans were killed in the crush around the airport on Saturday as thousands of people desperately tried to get a flight out. There have been other stampedes and crushing injuries in the crowds, especially as Taliban fighters fire into the air to drive away those desperate to get on any flight out of the country.
“Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible,” the British Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Sky News showed footage of soldiers standing on a wall on Saturday attempting to pull the injured out from the crush and spraying people with a hose to prevent them from getting dehydrated.
Reportage poignant de Stuart Ramsay, le doyen des correspondants de SkyNews, dans le chaos innommable de l’aéroport de Kaboul. pic.twitter.com/cWYzbJcSnm— Pascal Riché (@pascalriche) August 22, 2021
"Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible," the ministry said in a statement.
A NATO official said that at least 20 people have died in the past seven days in and around the airport. Some were shot and others died in stampedes, witnesses have said. “The crisis outside the Kabul airport is unfortunate. Our focus is to evacuate all foreigners as soon as we can,” the NATO official told the Guardian.
The good news is that according to Ramsay the situation outside the airport is "calmer" but "could change any time."
Sky's Stuart Ramsay says the situation outside Kabul's airport is 'calmer', but it 'could change anytime'.— Sky News (@SkyNews) August 22, 2021
People have been queuing for evacuation for hours and days with little water, and crowd crushing resulted in at least three deaths.
Latest: https://t.co/HOW1wt0fpz pic.twitter.com/UJKxToC8xo
Speaking to an Iranian state television channel late Saturday night in a video call, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem blamed the deaths at the airport on the Americans in what quickly became a combative interview.
“The Americans announced that we would take you to America with us and people gathered at Kabul airport,” Naeem said. “If it was announced right now in any country in the world, would people not go?”
The host on Iranian state TV quickly said: “It won’t happen in Iran.” Naeem responded: “Be sure this will happen anywhere.”
Meanwhile, the United States and other foreign countries including Britain have brought in several thousand troops to manage the evacuations of foreign citizens and vulnerable Afghans, but have stayed away from the outside areas of the airport.
"Our forces are maintaining strict distance from the outer areas of the Kabul airport to prevent any clashes with the Taliban," the NATO official said. A Taliban official said on Sunday that "we are seeking complete clarity on foreign forces' exit plan."
"Managing chaos outside Kabul airport is a complex task," the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
On Saturday, the United States and Germany told their citizens in Afghanistan to avoid traveling to Kabul airport - one day after Joe Biden said there was “no indication that [Americans] haven’t been able to get, in Kabul, through the airport - as desperate crowds gathered.
Army Major General William Taylor told a Pentagon briefing on Saturday that 5,800 U.S. troops remain at the airport and that the facility "remains secure". Taylor said some gates into the airport were temporarily closed and reopened over the past day to facilitate a safe influx of evacuees. He also said that the US flag continues to wave at this makeshift "US embassy." Taylor said that in the past week the United States has evacuated 17,000 people, including 2,500 Americans, from Kabul.
Australia ran four flights into Kabul on Saturday night, evacuating more than 300 people, including Australians, Afghan visa holders, New Zealanders, U.S. and British citizens, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
On Saturday, speaking at a rally in Alabama, Donald Trump called the botched evacuation of Afghanistan "the greatest foreign policy humiliation" in U.S. history.
* * *
And so as thousands wait for their turn to flee Kabul, Taliban leaders are trying to hammer out a new government while the Taliban's co- founder, Mullah Baradar, has arrived in the Afghan capital for talks with other leaders. Taliban commanders are set to meet former governors and bureaucrats in more than 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces over the next few days to ensure their safety and seek cooperation, the Taliban official said on Sunday.
Meanwhile, fighting has erupted in Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan province, some 120 kilometers north of Kabul. Forces organizing under the banner of the “People’s Uprising” have taken three districts around the Andarab Valley, nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains near Panjshir, the only province still not under Taliban control, where remnants of government forces and other militia groups have gathered. While details of the fighting remain unclear, it marks the first organized resistance to rise up against the Taliban since they blitzed across the country in under a week to seize the majority of the country and its capital.
On Sunday, the Taliban published video online showing fighters, including their elite special forces, preparing to head there, possibly to fight the “People’s Uprising” forces. Four officials said the Taliban had gone into the Keshnabad area of Andarab Valley to abduct the children of those opposing them.
Khair Mohammad Khairkhwa, the former head of intelligence in Balkh province, and Abdul Ahmad Dadgar, another leader in the uprising, alleged that Taliban fighters had attacked people’s homes and burned them while taking children. Two other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also alleged the Taliban seized fighters’ children. The Taliban did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the fighting.