Taliban Warns Against Delaying Troop Withdrawal As West Worries About Completing Evacuation
By RFE/RL August 23, 2021
The Taliban has warned that it will not accept any extension to the August 31 withdrawal for international forces after the United States and other Western countries said the chaotic evacuation of thousands of people seeking to flee Afghanistan may require keeping troops on the ground past the deadline.
The stark warning from the militants on August 23 came after one Afghan guard was killed and three were wounded in a firefight at Kabul airport as the exodus of tens of thousands of people seeking to escape Taliban-run Afghanistan continues.
Two NATO officials at the airport said the situation was under control after the shooting death. The Taliban has deployed fighters outside the airport, where they say they have tried to help enforce some kind of order.
Twenty people have been killed in the chaos at the airport, mostly in shootings and stampedes, as U.S. and international forces try to move citizens and vulnerable Afghans out of the country following the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.
The crisis has prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to note that his national security team was discussing the possibility of extending an August 31 deadline.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to press Biden at an emergency meeting of Group of Seven leaders on August 24 to extend the Kabul evacuations, while France's foreign minister said Paris agreed that more time was needed to complete the process.
Germany's foreign minister said discussions had begun between his country, the United States, Turkey, and the Taliban with the aim of "facilitating a civil operation of Kabul airport to enable the evacuation of people beyond August 31."
However, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he was "not aware of specific conversations we've had in respect to the deadline."
Earlier, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News in an interview broadcast on August 23 that such a move would create "mistrust" and "provoke a reaction."
"It's a red line. President Biden announced that on 31 August they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that," Shaheen said.
"If the U.S. or U.K. were to seek additional time to continue evacuations -- the answer is no. Or there would be consequences," he added. He did not elaborate on what the consequences may be.
The Pentagon said on August 23 that around 16,000 people had been evacuated through the Kabul airport over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of people relocated from Afghanistan to 37,000 since the intense airlift operations started on August 14.
A U.S. military spokesman said the firefight outside the north gate of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport appeared to have begun "when an unknown hostile actor fired upon Afghan security forces."
"The Afghans returned fire, and in keeping with their right of self-defense, so too did U.S. and coalition troops," Captain William Urban said in a statement.
"One member of the Afghan forces was killed by the hostile actor; several Afghans were wounded during the exchange," he added.
The United States has voiced concerns about a possible threat from Islamic State militants in Afghanistan known as ISIS-K, a foe of the Taliban, around the airport. White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan called the threat "real and acute" in remarks to CNN.
The U.S. military has been in constant contact with the Taliban to facilitate the evacuations. Biden has said the group has been "cooperative in extending some of the perimeter" around the airport as thousands gather in the area.
Thousands of U.S., British, and allied troops have secured Kabul's airport, and struggled to keep crowds at bay and away from tarmacs as military and civilian aircraft take off carrying foreigners and Afghans.
Growing security threats have prompted U.S. military planes to do rapid, diving, combat landings at the Kabul airport and other aircraft have been seen shooting flares on takeoff, apparently in an attempt to confuse possible heat-seeking missiles.
The U.S. Embassy issued a new security alert warning citizens not to travel to the Kabul airport without individual instruction from a U.S. government representative. Some U.S. citizens are being flown by helicopter from destinations within Kabul directly to the airport.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, ordered six commercial airlines to help transport people after their evacuation. In total, 18 commercial aircraft from major carriers like United, American, and Delta will be used to ferry people from temporary locations after arriving from Afghanistan. The planes will not travel to Kabul itself.
Hungary said on August 23 that it had evacuated 173 people from Afghanistan on a plane that arrived in Budapest via Uzbekistan, and called on U.S. troops at Kabul airport not to impede people Hungary wants to fly out from getting into the airport.
"We have brought out a large part of passengers at American and Austrian request...in exchange we expect our allies, including the Americans, not to hinder people whom we want to evacuate from getting into Kabul airport," Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told reporters.
Taliban leaders have reportedly begun talks on forming a government as Kabul residents complained that the public and telecom services are still being disrupted and banks remained closed more than a week after the militants seized the capital.
"We have no money. Banks are closed. There is no money. There are no credit cards," a resident who didn't give her name, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi over the phone.
"Mobile phones do not work properly. The Internet does not work. Poor teachers have not received their salaries. All government employees are unpaid. It is not known when the banks will open. Everyone is worried," she said.
With the Taliban trying to consolidate its control over Kabul and establish law and order, Farzana Kochai, a member of the Afghan parliament who has not fled Kabul, told Radio Azadi that she was "worried" about her safety and that of other women and youths.
"I hope that they can be safe and will not be harmed physically and mentally because of their past and current thoughts and opinions," she said.
The Taliban faced a new challenge in the northern Panjshir Valley, north of the capital, from fighters who refuse to recognize the Taliban's claim to power.
Remnants of government troops and special forces have reportedly gathered in the Panjshir Valley -- long known as an anti-Taliban stronghold -- and joined local militiamen in forming a National Resistance Front.
The Taliban said its fighters had retaken three districts in northern Baghlan Province that neighbor Panjshir Province -- Banu, Pol-e Hesar, and Deh Salah.
But local sources told Radio Azadi on August 23 that clashes were going on in two of those districts between popular uprising forces and the Taliban.
Local forces recently claimed that three districts were "freed from Taliban control."
The Islamists have "massed forces near the entrance of Panjshir," tweeted Amrullah Saleh, a vice president in the previous government who has taken refuge in the area.
One of the front's leaders is Ahmad Masud, the son of famed anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Masud.
Ahmad Masud said on August 22 that he hoped to hold peaceful talks with the Islamist movement but that his forces in Panjshir were ready to fight.
"We want to make the Taliban realize that the only way forward is through negotiation," he said. "We do not want a war to break out."
However, the front is prepared for a "long-term conflict," spokesman Ali Maisam Nazary said.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin expressed "deep concern" during an online emergency session of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) over "the potential threats coming from Afghanistan."
At the talks, Putin and Central Asian leaders voiced concerns that the Islamic State extremist group still had a foothold in Afghanistan and was a threat, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.
With reporting by Reuters, Sky News, The Wall Street Journal, dpa, AP, and AFP
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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