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Thousands of Afghans can’t access the airport. Those who can recall Taliban threats, abuse

As more American and allied flights leave the capital of Afghanistan Thursday, an ever-growing panic descends on the city. More American troops and marines arrived, but despite U.S. efforts, Taliban fighters are hindering movement toward the Kabul airport, leaving thousands of civilians trapped. With support from the Pulitzer Center, Jane Ferguson reports on the situation in Kabul.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More American and allied flights are leaving the capital of Afghanistan tonight, as an ever-growing sense of panic descends on the city.

    More American troops and Marines landed, with more on the way, but Taliban fighters, despite U.S. efforts, are hindering movement toward the Kabul Airport, and thousands of civilians remain trapped.

    Again with the support of the Pulitzer Center, Jane Ferguson reports from Kabul.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Demonstrators paraded a long Afghan national flag through the streets of Kabul today, a show of defiance against Taliban rule as the country celebrated independence day, the end of British control in 1919.

    Sporadic anti-Taliban protests spread to more cities. Many were met with gunfire to break up the crowds. Taliban fighters reportedly fired on people waving the Afghan flag at a rally in the eastern city of Asadabad. Witnesses said several people were killed. Gunfire also rang out for another day outside's Kabul's international airport, as crowds desperately tried to flee the country.

    For those who make it past the Taliban checkpoints and into the airport compound, life here is pretty rudimentary. Thousands are sleeping outside, and yet the atmosphere is one of hope and relief. It may not be comfortable, but it's safe.

    NATO and Taliban officials estimate at least a dozen people have been killed in and around the airport in recent days, either by gunshots or in stampedes. The Taliban has even called on the country's imams during Friday prayers to persuade their followers to stay in Afghanistan.

    The U.S. is urging people to get to the airport as soon as possible. But Taliban fighters are preventing many from doing so, despite U.S. officials repeatedly saying they'd struck a deal with the Taliban to allow passage.

    Pentagon officials reported more than 7,000 people have been evacuated so far. About 5, 200 U.S. service members are involved in that operation. Armed U.S. fighter jets are also flying overhead to maintain security. Back in Washington, the Pentagon estimated between 5,000 and 9,000 people can be flown out daily, a number they are hoping to increase.

  • John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary:

    We have got additional consular officers now at these additional gates with these additional troops helping the consular officers.

    And so I think we're poised to see an increase, but I want to be careful before I make predictions. What we're trying to do, what we want to drive is an increase.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Outside the airport's perimeter, Taliban fighters patrolled the streets. One of the group's commanders vowed to restore peace.

  • Jehad Yaar, Taliban Commander (through translator):

    The market is very crowded, and people are very happy. A large number of people and residents of Kabul are not afraid of us anymore.

    We will bring security to Afghanistan, and we will improve the economy and life. We will try to hand over the power to the people.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Meanwhile, in the western city of Herat, a glimmer of normalcy, as girls returned to school to take their midterm exams. The militant group said they can continue their education as long as they wear their hijab head coverings.

    How long this continues remains an open and urgent question. President Biden said he wasn't convinced the Taliban have changed their ways. He spoke in an exclusive interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.

  • Joe Biden:

    I think they're going through sort of an existential crisis about, do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Afghanistan is also facing a humanitarian crisis, with major food shortages and a drought that resulted in the loss of more than 40 percent of the country's crops.

    Caroline Van Buren is with the United Nations Refugee Agency in Afghanistan. She warned, the situation is especially dire now that tens of thousands of Afghan people have been displaced.

  • Caroline Van Buren:

    Eighty percent of those forced to flee within the country are women and children. They need shelter, health care, sanitation, and other core relief items. Most of all, they need safety and stability.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    At the same time, Afghanistan faces a potential currency collapse. The head of the Afghan Central bank warned its supply of U.S. dollars is — quote — "close to zero." The International Monetary Fund has also blocked the country from getting loans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Jane joins again tonight live from Kabul.

    So, Jane, it was only, what, just a few days ago that the Taliban was trying to say to the world, we're going to respect human rights, but now we see they are violently reacting to these protests.

    It didn't last long, did it?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The reality, Judy, of implementing any concept of human rights amongst your rank-and-file in the street is clearly becoming difficult for the Taliban.

    Those words of wanting to give people rights and to rule peacefully have not rung true at all whenever the realities of what they're seeing on the ground have played out. Their foot soldiers have been opening fire on people. We have reports of journalists being intimidated and beaten up.

    We have also had reports of local journalists going into hiding because fighters have come and knocked on their door. There is a growing sense of panic that the old Taliban is back. Many of us are fielding calls from contacts and connections who are panicked and increasingly desperate to get out of the city.

    Now, it is likely that the Taliban leadership meant it to a certain degree whenever they said that they wanted to be seen to be providing stability, because, for them, whether or not they really believe in human rights, what they do believe in is not looking as though they can't control the situation, that they can't basically display they're in charge and there is stability under their rule.

    Whether or not they're able to control their rank-and-file going forward will be their biggest challenge. Don't forget, these are foot soldiers who are used to operating in rural areas, where they can just show up at people's houses and demand to be fed and shelter for the night.

    Now they're in cities, with modern, educated populations, who are not used to being told what to do. And that is a huge challenge for the Taliban leadership.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jane, take us back to the situation at the airport in Kabul. Has that improved at all?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    We're seeing flights going in and out. There has been a slight improvement on the situation on the runway. You might be able to hear helicopters behind me.

    Those are shifting people basically from one place to the runway and back. So, that has been a slight improvement. But the situation outside the airport on the roads is getting dramatically worse. There is a growing sense of panic amongst the local population.

    And people who are coming and just getting through and into this airport area are telling us stories of increasingly violent intimidation, of being beaten by Taliban members at the checkpoints on the way here, of being verbally abused, and having heavy, heavy gunfire fired over their heads in scenes that are unbelievably violent.

    Don't forget, a lot of these people who are trying to get to the airport are families. They have got children with them.

    I spoke with young women who feel like they have been particularly singled out for a lot of the intimidation. And one young woman who just made it to the airport today told me, the Taliban fighters were shouting at them and shouting at all of the women, "We will not allow America to take our women."

    So there is just incredibly dystopian scenes of chaos on the outskirts of the airport. And it's heartbreaking that people still have to go through that just to try to make it onto a plane.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Still remembering that woman doctor you spoke with last night, Jane. Such a moving portrait. And we know there are so many more like her.

    Jane Ferguson, reporting live for us again tonight from Kabul.

    Jane, thank you, and please stay safe.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now for the perspective on the Afghan situation from the Biden administration.

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