Several NATO nations have proposed that Kabul airport remain open for evacuations beyond the current deadline of August 31, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has told a news conference after a meeting of alliance countries’ foreign ministers.
In his opening remarks on Friday, Stoltenberg called it NATO’s priority to get people out of Kabul and keep the airport running.
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“The US has stated that the timeline ends on August 31, but several of our allies raised … the need to potentially extend that to be able to get more people out,” he said.
Stoltenberg described the situation outside Kabul airport as “very dire and difficult”. Thousands of foreign nationals and people who may be under threat from the Taliban are desperately trying to get into the airport.
“[The allies] see that with the current pace, we were not able to get all the people that want to get out by the end of that timeline,” Stoltenberg told Al Jazeera later in an interview, adding that “It’s an extremely unpredictable and difficult situation around the Kabul airport.”
He said the challenge was not so much transporting people from Kabul but getting them to the airport in the first place, and this was “an urgent need”.
“Many allies made clear that they are ready to host Afghans … to have temporary staging areas to process. But many allies also expressed willingness to resettle Afghans who work for us, Afghans at risk on a more permanent basis,” Stoltenberg said.
“We have a lot of planes in the area which can help people out. The challenge is to get them to the airport.”
More than 18,000 people have been flown out since the Taliban took the capital Kabul, according to the transatlantic alliance.
Stoltenberg said at the press conference that many of the 30 NATO nations had sent planes to evacuate vulnerable people, but there was more capacity on those aircraft than there were people ready to board them because of the chaos outside the airport.
Stoltenberg thanked Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom for their efforts to establish security at Kabul airport, and again urged the Taliban to allow the safe passage of all foreign nationals and Afghans seeking to depart the country.
Although the deadline for the withdrawal of thousands of US troops who are crucial for securing Kabul airport is August 31, US President Joe Biden said this week that they may stay longer to facilitate the evacuation of Americans.
One of the main hurdles for people looking to leave Afghanistan continues to be the perilous journey to Kabul airport. The US has so far been unable to ensure safe passage to US citizens or others, although it has said it had gotten assurances from the Taliban that they won’t block people from getting there.
But reports from the ground suggest otherwise. Thousands of Afghans clutching papers, children and some belongings still thronged the airport where gun-toting Taliban fighters ordered those without travel documents to go home.
In and around the airport, 12 people have been killed since Sunday, NATO and Taliban officials said.
After almost two decades, NATO this summer completed military operations in Afghanistan and withdrew most troops from the country following Biden’s decision to end the war.
The alliance still has diplomatic representation in Kabul. Headquartered in Brussels, it also serves as a forum to coordinate national measures in Afghanistan, such as the evacuation of citizens.
NATO foreign ministers warned the Taliban on Friday not to let Afghanistan become a breeding ground for “terrorism”. The group was overthrown from power in 2001 after a US-led invasion launched following the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks on the US.
“For the last 20 years, we have successfully denied terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to instigate attacks,” the ministers said in a statement after their virtual meeting.
Stoltenberg said earlier this week that NATO had “capabilities to strike terrorist groups from a distance” if groups try to re-establish themselves in Afghanistan and plan attacks against allied countries.