Extraordinary footage of Afghans clinging on to a United States Air Force plane in a desperate bid to flee the country have been described as the “defining images” of the decades-long military intervention by Western powers.
Videos shared widely on social media on Monday showed hundreds of people running alongside a US military jet as it prepared to depart Kabul airport.
One video showed several people climbing onto the plane as it progressed down the airport’s runway, some of whom appeared to be hanging off its moving front wheel.
Another horrifying clip appeared to show at least two people falling from the sky after the plane has taken off.
Hours earlier, five people were killed as chaos broke out in the terminals of Hamid Karzai International Airport and on the tarmac after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital.
In other footage, US soldiers managing the airport appeared to fire warning shots in the air as crowds surged.
Dozens of others could be seen in videos attempting to scale a staircase and board a plane, with some people hanging off the railings.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said the “chaotic and desperate scenes” began to unfold after it became clear the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban was assuming control of Kabul.
“That caused a surge of people moving toward the airport,” he said. “It seemed as though airport security, airline and airport staff simply melted away, and it really was a free-for-all.”
‘Shocking, unreal scenes’
The harrowing footage from the runway was widely described on social media as the “defining image” of the US-led incursion into Afghanistan.
The intervention, which began in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, is currently being wound down by Washington and allied forces, with the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Unprecedented images from Kabul Airport. These have to be the defining images of this war. This is on America’s conscience! Shocking, unreal scenes! pic.twitter.com/JYoUrMgUKs
— Sameer ‘Sadiq’ Bhat (@sadiquiz) August 16, 2021
Incredibly powerful, defining images from Kabul Airport this morning – as people clamber onto an airbridge, so desperate are they to escape Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover. https://t.co/m2MFJ7dcI1
— Andrew Connell (@andrewiconnell) August 16, 2021
Some lamented the “unimaginable … level of desperation it must have taken to hang onto an airplane”, and described the unravelling security situation as “unbelievable”.
For others, the images were reminiscent of the chaos that enveloped the US’s escape from Vietnam at the end of the country’s war in 1975, though US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has rejected the comparison.
The level of desperation it must have taken to hang onto an airplane wing or landing gear until falling to their death is unimaginable. The situation at the Kabul airport is horrific. What a calamity.
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) August 16, 2021
— Jane Ferguson (@JaneFerguson5) August 16, 2021
This footage will still be played in 100 years. It now joins images of the retreat from Saigon and the naked Vietnamese girl as one of the west’s most shameful moments in modern history. pic.twitter.com/kcGLKLs5yG
— David Patrikarakos (@dpatrikarakos) August 16, 2021
In recent days, the US and several of Washington’s allies, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have been trying to arrange evacuation flights out of Kabul in line with the end of their combat operations in Afghanistan.
As authorities attempted to clear the throngs of people who had converged on its airfield, the US later on Monday halted all evacuation flights from Kabul, a defence official told Reuters news agency.
This, even more than yesterday's images of choppers over the embassy, may be the defining image of the West's failure in Afghanistan.
People so terrified, so desperate to leave, they are chasing a plane down the runway, clinging to its undercarriage. https://t.co/mAnBLL4EBP
— Emma Graham-Harrison (@_EmmaGH) August 16, 2021
The official did not say how long the pause on evacuation flights would last.
Airlines are meanwhile avoiding flights over Afghanistan after the local aviation authority urged them to reroute.
Just seen the most heartbreaking footage from Kabul airport: terrified Afghans clinging to the undercarriage of US planes taxiing along the apron, then falling to their death, one by one, as the plane climbs. The most tragic symbol yet of the whole US betrayal of Afghanistan.
— William Dalrymple (@DalrympleWill) August 16, 2021
British Airways, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Air France and Virgin Atlantic announced they were no longer flying over the country after the Taliban took over Kabul.
The Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority said in a “notice to airmen” that “Kabul airspace has been released to the military”.
It advised airlines to reroute as “any transit through Kabul airspace will be uncontrolled”.