Taliban blocks Kabul airport to most as foreign airlifts wane

Taliban says it is ready to take over Kabul airport and already holds some positions, but Pentagon denies the claim.

Taliban forces block the roads around the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan [Reuters]

Taliban forces have sealed off Kabul’s airport to most Afghans hoping for evacuation, as the United States and its allies wound down a chaotic airlift that will end their troops’ two decades in Afghanistan.

Western leaders acknowledged that their withdrawal would mean leaving behind some of their citizens and many locals who helped them over the years, and they promised to try to continue working with the Taliban to allow local allies to leave after President Joe Biden’s Tuesday’s deadline to withdraw from the country.

Although most of its allies had finished their evacuation flights, the US said it planned to keep its round-the-clock flights going until the deadline.

According to US government figures, the air bridge allowed for the evacuation of 112,000 Afghans and foreign nations since August 14, the eve of the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, and 117,500 people since late July.

The United Kingdom was carrying out its final evacuation flights on Saturday, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to “shift heaven and earth” to get more of those at risk from the Taliban to the UK by other means.

Members of the British armed forces 16 Air Assault Brigade walk to the air terminal after disembarking a Royal Air Force Voyager aircraft at Brize Norton, Oxfordshire as the troops return from assisting with the evacuation of people from Kabul airport in Afghanistan [Alastair Grant/ Pool via AFP]

Johnson discussed the evacuations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in a phone call on Saturday.

The three leaders “agreed on the fact that the evacuation of their nationals, Afghan personnel [who had worked with their armed forces] and people in danger was always the highest priority, as well as providing humanitarian supplies to the populations. and refugees from the region”, said Merkel’s spokesman Stefan Seibert.

Taliban ‘ready’ to take airport

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Saturday the group’s forces were holding some positions within the airport and were ready to peacefully take control of it as American forces flew out. But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby denied the claim.

The Taliban deployed extra forces outside the airport to prevent large crowds from gathering in the wake of Thursday’s bombing. New layers of checkpoints sprang up on roads leading to the airport, some manned by uniformed Taliban fighters with Humvees and night-vision goggles captured from Afghan security forces.  Areas where the crowds had gathered over the past two weeks in the hopes of fleeing the country were largely empty.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said since Friday evening, the US military has been pulling back its forces and giving up its guard posts to the Taliban on the outer perimeter of Kabul airport and in some positions inside the airport before the deadline for the final withdrawal of its troops on August 31.

“You do get a sense this Saturday evening here in Kabul that this long, drawn-out, often chaotic and traumatic evacuation process [is] finally in the end game,” he said.

Afghan evacuees queue before boarding one of the last Italian military aircraft flights during the evacuation at Kabul’s airport, Afghanistan [Italian Ministry of Defence/Handout via Reuters]

As the flow of planes leaving Kabul slowed, others arrived in locales around the world carrying Afghans who managed to secure places on the last evacuation flights, including in the Washington area, Philadelphia, Madrid, Birmingham, England, among others. Some were relieved and looking forward to starting their new lives far from the Taliban, but others were bitter about having to flee.

An evacuation flight to Britain landed with an extra passenger on Saturday after the cabin crew delivered a baby girl midair, Turkish media reported. The parents named her Havva, or Eve, and she was at least the fourth baby known to have been born to Afghan mothers who went into labour on evacuation flights.

The Taliban has encouraged Afghans to stay, pledging amnesty even to those who fought against them, and has said commercial flights would resume after the US withdrawal, but it is unclear if airlines will be willing to offer service.

The US and its allies have said they will continue providing humanitarian aid through the UN and other partners, but any broader engagement – including development assistance – is likely to hinge on whether the Taliban deliver on their promises of more moderate rule.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies, AP