KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban forces sealed off Kabul’s airport Saturday to most Afghans hoping for evacuation and most NATO nations flew out their troops after two decades in Afghanistan, winding down a frantic airlift that Western leaders acknowledged was still leaving many of their citizens and local allies behind.
The United States, which says round-the-clock multinational flights have evacuated 117,000 people since the Taliban claimed Kabul on Aug. 15, was keeping up airlifts ahead of President Joe Biden’s Tuesday deadline for withdrawal.
Britain also was carrying out its final evacuation flights Saturday, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to “shift heaven and earth” to get more of those at risk from the Taliban to Britain by other means.
Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, said in a video from Kabul airport and posted on Twitter that it was “time to close this phase of the operation now.”
“But we haven’t forgotten the people who still need to leave,” he said. “We’ll continue to do everything we can to help them. Nor have we forgotten the brave, decent people of Afghanistan. They deserve to live in peace and security.”
As the flow of planes leaving Kabul slowed, others arrived in cities around the world. Afghans who managed to secure places on the last evacuation flights were heading for the Washington area and Philadelphia, Madrid, Birmingham, England, and elsewhere. Some were relieved and looking forward to starting their new lives far from the Taliban, but others were bitter about having to flee.
In Spain, evacuee Shabeer Ahmadi, a 29-year-old journalist targeted by the Taliban, said the United States had doomed the work he and others had put into making Afghanistan a better place by allowing the insurgent group to reclaim power.
“They abandoned the new generation of Afghanistan,” Ahmadi said.
An evacuation flight to Britain landed with an extra passenger on Saturday after the cabin crew delivered a baby girl mid-air, 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 labor on evacuation flights.
Meanwhile, families of Afghans killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing at the airport by an Islamic State group affiliate set about burying their dead — at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members died in the attack. Among those killed was Belal Azfali, a 36-year-old contractor for a U.S.-funded project who had gone to the airport on his own, without his wife. His remains were so disfigured that he could only be identified when someone picked up the family’s repeated calls to the cellphone he had with him, relatives said.
The U.S. on Saturday released the identities of the 13 Marines, Navy and Army forces killed in the bombing. They included at least one of the Marines — recently promoted Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23 — who were seen in widely circulated photos cuddling Afghan infants they had temporarily rescued from the crush of the crowds outside the airport gates earlier this month.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed Saturday that 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 did deploy extra forces outside of 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.
Officials said U.S. forces were taking every precaution they could at the airport, as there were concerns that IS, which is far more radical than the Taliban, could strike again. Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor said during a Pentagon news conference Saturday that a retaliatory drone strike Biden ordered had killed two “high-profile” IS militants believed to have been involved in planning or facilitating attacks, not one, as initially reported.
“The fact that two of these individuals are no longer walking on the face of the earth, that’s a good thing,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
An Afghan who worked as a translator for the U.S. military said he was with a group of people with permission to leave who tried to reach the airport late Friday. After passing through three checkpoints they were stopped at a fourth. An argument ensued, and the Taliban said they had been told by the Americans to only let U.S. passport-holders through.
“I am so hopeless for my future,” the man told The Associated Press after returning to Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. “If the evacuation is over, what will happen to us?”
Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Saturday that Afghans who had worked with American forces still were being allowed in.
According to a State Department spokesperson, 5,400 Americans and likely more have been safely evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, including nearly 300 Americans in the last day. Another 350 Americans were still seeking to leave the country, and those were the only ones the department could confirm were still in Afghanistan.
Afghans, meanwhile, faced economic crises as many Western governments withheld support from Taliban rule.
In Kabul, hundreds of protesters, including many civil servants, gathered outside a bank while countless more lined up at cash machines. They said they hadn’t been paid for three to six months and were unable to withdraw cash. ATM machines were still operating, but withdrawals were limited to about $200 every 24 hours.
Later Saturday, the central bank ordered commercial bank branches to open and allow customers to withdraw $200 per week, calling it a temporary measure.
The economic crisis, which predates the Taliban takeover, could give Western nations leverage as they urge Afghanistan’s new rulers to form a moderate, inclusive government and allow people to leave after Tuesday.
Afghanistan is heavily dependent on international aid, which covered around 75% of the toppled Western-backed government’s budget. The Taliban have said they want good relations with the international community and have promised a more moderate form of Islamic rule than when they last governed the country, but many Afghans are deeply skeptical.
The Taliban cannot access almost any of the central bank’s $9 billion in reserves, most of which is held by the New York Federal Reserve. The International Monetary Fund has also suspended the transfer of some $450 million. Without a regular supply of U.S. dollars, the local currency is at risk of collapse, which could send the price of basic goods soaring.
Biden has said he will adhere to a self-imposed Tuesday deadline for withdrawing all U.S. forces, but will work with the Taliban to continue evacuating Americans and others afterward. The leaders of other NATO allies pulling out also vowed to continue helping Afghans who had worked with them.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Saturday during a trip to Iraq that France is holding discussions with the Taliban and Qatar with a view to retrieving Afghans on France’s list for evacuation who could not get out before France shut down operations at Kabul airport the night before.
Italian Foreign Minister Di Maio said: “Our imperative must be to not abandon the Afghan people,” especially women and children.
The Taliban, who control nearly the entire country outside of Kabul’s airport, have rejected any extension of the withdrawal date. The group has encouraged Afghans to stay, pledging amnesty even to those who fought against them, and has said commercial flights would resume after the U.S. withdrawal, but it’s unclear if airlines will be willing to offer service.
The U.S. and its allies have said they will continue providing humanitarian aid through the U.N. 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.