AGENCIES | Guardian | Kabul — Tens of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who collaborated with US and NATO forces remain stranded in Kabul, as governments grappled with an overwhelming backlog of visas and Taliban checkpoints which were preventing people safely reaching the airport.
With the 31 August deadline set by Biden for complete US withdrawal looming, tens of thousands of people eligible for US evacuation were yet to be airlifted out, many who were among the crowds gathered around Kabul airport brandishing their papers or proof they had worked on US military bases.
The UK government was also struggling to evacuate its allies.
The urgency of the evacuation of those allied with US and Nato forces, and western media organisations, was further compounded by growing reports of Taliban fighters going door-to-door looking for those who had worked with the previous regime, and threatening them into joining the Taliban.
A German broadcaster said a family member of one of its reporters had been shot and killed by the Taliban when they came looking for the journalist, who had already fled the country.
Meanwhile, a German NGO said it had closed its safehouses for Afghan nationals who worked with coalition forces, calling them “death traps.”
“The Taliban are going door-to-door looking for local forces,” said Marcus Grotian, an active German soldier who runs the network. “This was foreseeable, and there has already been a visit to one of the safehouses by the Taliban. Thank God it was empty.”
This hunt came despite Taliban promises just days ago that they would seek “no revenge” and that “nobody will go to their doors to ask why they helped”.
Fears grew of a Taliban regime as brutal and violent as when they previously controlled Afghanistan under a strict and repressive interpretation of Islamic sharia law. A report by Amnesty International said that Taliban fighters had recently brutally tortured and “massacred” nine members of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan during their advance across the country.
According to eyewitness accounts, Taliban fighters lay in wait for the Hazara men and then ambushed them in their homes, strangling them and cutting off their limbs. The report said that six of the men had been shot and three had been tortured to death by the Taliban.
The Hazara community practice Shia Islam and have long been one of the most persecuted minorities in Sunni-majority Afghanistan and Pakistan. The massacre, which took place in July, chillingly evoked the events of 2001, when the Taliban committed a mass execution of Hazara people over four days in Bamyan province, killing 170.Advertisement
Despite the Taliban’s recent efforts to portray themselves as moderate and civilised, Amnesty said the recent killings, which took place in Ghazni province, were a “horrifying indicator” of what Taliban rule could bring.
Taliban fighters and their checkpoints continued to blockade the airport on Thursday, major barriers for Afghans who fear that their past work with westerners makes them prime targets for retribution. Prior to Afghanistan falling to Taliban control, more than 300 Afghan interpreters and their relatives were killed by militants because of their US ties, according to the non-profit organisation.
Hundreds of Afghans who lacked any papers or clearance for evacuation also congregated outside the airport, adding to the chaos that has prevented even some Afghans who do have papers and promises of flights from getting through.
The White House said early on Friday that about 9,000 people had been evacuated since 14 August. The US state department spokesperson Ned Price said that a further 6,000 people were cleared for evacuation on Thursday.
It marked an increase from recent days, when only around 2,000 passengers per day have been evacuated, but was still not at the 9,000 per day evacuation capacity the US said was possible.
Germany said it had evacuated 1,600 people since the Taliban took control of the country on Sunday, and France said it had airlifted out over 300 Afghan nationals who had worked for the diplomatic mission.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said efforts were underway to speed up the processing for US evacuees, including bringing in more staff to vet visa applications and opening up additional entry gates at the airport to allow better access.
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Even before Afghanistan fell under full Taliban control, the US had been grappling with a huge backlog in processing Special Immigrant Visas for those who had helped the US military in Afghanistan, due in part to coronavirus halting operations for months. Earlier this year, 18,000 Afghan allies and 53,000 family members remained in the processing backlog.
There is no accurate figure of the number of people – Americans, Afghans or others – who are in need of evacuation as the process is almost entirely self-selecting. It is estimated to be around 11,000 to 15,000 US citizens and dual US-Afghan citizens along with family members, as well as tens of thousands of Afghans who may also be at risk.
Compounding the uncertainty, the US government has no way to track how many registered Americans may have left Afghanistan already. Some may have returned to the United States but others may have gone to third countries.
Democratic Representative Seth Moulton, a former Marine who served four tours in Iraq, called the Biden administration’s efforts to evacuate US citizens and Afghan allies out of the country the “greatest foreign policy disaster that we’ve seen in a very long time”.
Fears were growing for the safety of those stranded. A report by a Norwegian intelligence group said the Taliban had begun knocking on the doors and rounding up Afghans on a blacklist of people who had collaborated with the previous regime.
German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle said the Taliban shot and killed a family member of one of their reporters in Afghanistan and severely injured a second family member.
The broadcaster said in a statement on Thursday that Taliban fighters were looking for the Deutsche Welle reporter and searching homes in western Afghanistan. It said other family members managed to escape. Deutsche Welle said the reporter himself, whose identity was not revealed, was already based in Germany.
Complaints by some Afghan journalists have also cast doubt on assurances that independent media would be allowed.
Meanwhile, in the UK, foreign secretary Dominic Raab is facing mounting pressure to resign over his handling of the crisis as the opposition Labour party warned there had been an “unforgivable failure of leadership” by the British government.
The party has set out a list of 18 urgent questions for the foreign secretary to answer about his trip and his department’s handling of the crisis.
Raab, who rejected calls to resign on Thursday, was reportedly “unavailable” when officials in his department suggested he “urgently” call Afghan foreign minister Hanif Atmar on 13 August – two days before the Taliban marched on Kabul – to arrange help for those who supported British troops.
It was reported on Thursday that the Afghan foreign ministry refused to arrange a call with a junior minister, pushing it back to the next day. It has since emerged that a call never took place.