Chaos at Kabul airport raises questions about U.S. evacuation effort
President Joe Biden had a message for Americans in Afghanistan on Friday: "Let me be clear, any American who wants to come, we will get you home."
But a day later, Hamid Karzai International Airport remained a scene of chaos, witnesses and participants in various rescue attempts said.
Due to a backup in Qatar, where most U.S. evacuation planes land, all gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport were closed Saturday, according to a Defense department official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul alerted Americans on Saturday not to travel to the airport without “individual instructions from a U.S. government representative” because of threats outside the gates.
Panicked – and often starving and dehydrated – Americans and Afghans alike have found it hard to get through Taliban checkpoints leading into and out of the airport, according to some current and former U.S. officials assisting in rescue efforts.
And many of those who do make it through are being crushed at or near to the airport gates, according Rep. Seth Moulton, a Marine Corps veteran. The Biden administration has not made good on its promise to deploy every resource necessary and available to the effort, the Massachusetts Democrat told ABC’S Jake Tapper Friday night. "It’s “just not true,” he said. “It's completely unacceptable.”
"Today is the worst it's been,"one staffer for Sen. Tom Cotton, R.-Ark., said Saturday, regarding the situation at the airport for Afghans and some Americans trying to flee the Taliban. He was part of a team effort by Cotton's office to help U.S. citizens and allied Afghans get out, after the senator – himself a U.S. military veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – issued a public offer of assistance.
As night fell in Kabul, several urgent operations were underway, including efforts to connect sick or injured Americans with U.S. military on the ground in Kabul, said the staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the efforts publicly. One seriously ill baby girl, an American citizen, was finally inside the gates and receiving medical attention after a 24-hour ordeal, he said. "But we have hundreds more cases to get to."
Widely broadcast images showed Taliban fighters using gunfire, whips and clubs to maintain control of thousands of people – mostly Afghans – converging on the airport.
“I have personally been on the phone with multiple American citizens and Afghan allies *while* they were being beaten and threatened by Taliban fighters blocking route to airport,” tweeted Matthew Downer, a staffer for Cotton.
Videos show gunfire outside the airport, stampedes at the gates and even desperate Afghans trying to deliver their young children to safety by any means necessary – including throwing or handing some over barbed-wire fences.
U.S. military personnel had gone outside the gates to escort 169 Americans inside, Biden said. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin briefed congressional lawmakers later Friday that he was “aware” that some Americans and Afghans seeking to travel to the Kabul airport “have been harassed or even beaten by the Taliban.” He said he wouldn’t rule out expanding the military perimeter beyond the airport‚ in response to jarring images of heavily armed Taliban fighters encircling it and terrorizing many of the thousands of people trying to get in.
Rear Adm. Pete Vasely, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has had several conversations daily with a Taliban commander near the airport to allow safe passage to U.S. citizens and others with the passports and visas needed to leave Afghanistan, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.
Taliban militants operating checkpoints have been told to recognize valid documents, and there have been no reports of American citizens being stopped or harassed, Kirby told reporters Thursday. However, he added, the military does not have a complete picture of what’s happening on the crowded routes to the airport.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan acknowledged that the U.S. rescue effort continues to be “a risky operation” even though the Biden administration had established contact with the Taliban to allow for the safe passage of Americans and Afghans at risk to the airport. "That being said," he told NBC News’ Lester Holt on Thursday evening, "we can't count on anything.”
The U.S. has evacuated approximately 9,000 people since emergency evacuation operations began on Aug. 14 — 5,700 people by military transport over the past 24 hours alone. That included 350 U.S. citizens, family members, special immigrant visa applicants and their families, and other vulnerable Afghans, according to a White House official.
In the last 24 hours, the U.S. also facilitated the departure of 11 charter flights.
Even with the private evacuation networks efforts, there continued to be cases of stranded and injured people – including Americans – who couldn't make it to the airport or into the gates.
Former Army colonel Mike Jason, who served in Afghanistan, said while some Americans are still having a hard time getting to the airport gates – and through them – the process has been especially tough for the many dual citizenship Afghan-Americans. Some American citizens are afraid to go to the airport, “and won't go, some have been hurt. We are urging all people to go and bring supplies for a multi-day wait.”
Reports from the airport showed evidence of U.S. military transportplanes sitting and waiting for evacuees to get through the gates so they can be airlifted out. Processing backups temporarily halted flights to Qatar, a main evacuation hub. Friday the U.S. commander on the ground "issued the order to recommence," a senior administration official told USA TODAY.
“The processes are still confusing, cumbersome and seem to be changing on the fly,” Jason told USA TODAY on Friday. “We are hoping to help by centralizing information in a matter that is easily absorbed on a cell phone screen” for those at the airport or trying to get to it.
The outreach effort “is improving,” Jason added. “Each day, the situation improves.”
Cotton's staffers said they had helped get more than 100 people through, but that they had many dozens of other open cases that they were working on with U.S. military officials.
One pregnant woman, married to an Afghan interpreter, was in rapidly declining health late Thursday, they said. She was injured in one of the many stampedes at the airport gates.
Another woman waited outside one of the more permanent gates for many hours over multiple days, and had become so dehydrated that she could not breastfeed her baby.
Another woman had given up waiting outside the gates with her 10-year-old daughter, whose head was injured in a stampede.
'It's life or death'
For days, current and former military and diplomatic officials in the U.S. have been working their contacts to get people out of harm's way, especially American citizens and those Afghans whose work on behalf of the U.S. marks them for death by vengeful Taliban leaders.
Ezatullah Ebrat, a former Afghan platoon commander who worked for the CIA for seven years, says about a week ago Taliban soldiers raided his home in Kandahar, beat him in front of his family and took his weapons.
“They told me to stay at your home and we will come back and we’re dealing with you,” Ebrat told USA TODAY.
Ebrat said he and his family – a wife and four young children, including a 2-month-old baby – are now in hiding while a contact in the United States tries to raise money to charter a private plane to get them out.
But the logistics are both complicated and risky, said Jim Keady, a former New Jersey congressional candidate who does humanitarian work and is trying to help Ebrat.
“No one can get in and out of the Kabul airport … If you’re in there, you’re staying in there," Keady said. "The first thing that has to happen is the State Department has to figure out a way to open the airport, so that people can get inside the gate. What’s that process? In this situation, it’s life or death.”
But even if the airport is opened and the chartered flight for Ebrat and his family makes it to Kabul airport, there’s no guarantee they could get there safely, Keady said. Taliban fighters, he added, knows of Ebrat and are already looking for him.
“We are really in trouble right now,” Ebrat said. “We don’t know what will happen to us in the future.”
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian