Afghanistan, Biden and the Taliban: Live Updates

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Afghanistan, Biden and the Taliban: Live Updates

Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

U.S. and allied planes have flown an additional 19,200 people out of Kabul in the past 24 hours, officials said on Wednesday, as the Biden administration makes substantial inroads into getting American citizens and Afghans who worked for the United States over the last 20 years out of Afghanistan.

But thousands of U.S. citizens are believed to still be in the country, and President Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of American troops is rapidly approaching. Tens of thousands of Afghans who qualify for special immigration visas are also waiting to be evacuated.

As of 3 a.m. in Washington, the United States had evacuated about 82,300 people from Kabul’s international airport since Aug. 14.

Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of Afghans will be targeted by the Taliban if they stay, including Afghan security forces, government officials, women’s rights advocates and other defenders of democracy. Those Afghans are desperately hoping to join the U.S. military’s airlift before it begins to wind down, potentially as soon as this weekend.

It is not clear how many people want to be evacuated — or can be — by next week’s deadline. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is set to release more details about the effort, potentially including the numbers of Americans who remain in Afghanistan, on Wednesday.

Though Mr. Biden has vowed to stick to the Aug. 31 exit plan, as the Taliban have demanded, he also has instructed Mr. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin to draw up plans to push back the date if necessary.

The Taliban have warned of potential reprisals should the United States renege on its deadline, and Mr. Biden on Tuesday noted the danger to American troops should they remain much longer. Beyond the Taliban, extremists affiliated with the Islamic State are also believed to pose a threat to the evacuation effort that has drawn crowds of people to Kabul’s airport gates, clamoring to be allowed on one of the flights that are departing every 45 minutes.

“I’m determined to ensure that we complete our mission,” Mr. Biden said at the White House on Tuesday. “I’m also mindful of the increasing risks that I’ve been briefed on and the need to factor those risks in. There are real and significant challenges that we also have to take into consideration.”

But the dwindling hours are weighing heavily on the minds of people seeking to flee Afghanistan and members of Congress who want the United States to retain a presence there until Americans and high-risk Afghans can get out.

Selling bread on a street in Kabul on Saturday.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The Americans are all but gone, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban now rule the streets of Kabul. Overnight, millions of Kabul residents have been left to navigate an uncertain transition after 20 years of U.S.-backed rule.

Government services are largely unavailable. Residents are struggling to lead their daily lives in an ecconomy that, propped up for the past generation by American aid, is now in free fall. Banks are closed, cash is growing scarce, and food prices are rising.

Yet relative calm has reigned over Kabul, the capital, in sharp contrast to the chaos at its airport. Many residents are hiding in their homes or venturing out only cautiously to see what life might be like under their new rulers.

Even residents who said they feared the Taliban were struck by the relative order and quiet, but for some the calm has been ominous.

A resident named Mohib said that streets were deserted in his section of the city, with people hunkering down in their homes, “scared and terrorized.”

“People feel the Taliban may come any moment to take away everything from them,” he said.

“This new reality is bitter, but we must come to terms with it,” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, center, said about the Taliban-led Afghanistan on Wednesday.
Credit…Tobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Germany will maintain support for Afghans who remain in their country after the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal and evacuation mission passes in six days, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday. She also called for talks with the Taliban to preserve progress made in Afghanistan in the last two decades.

Speaking to a session of Parliament convened to discuss the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, the chancellor defended Germany’s decision to join the international intervention there in 2001.

“Our goal must be to preserve as much as possible what we have achieved in terms of changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years,” Ms. Merkel told lawmakers. “This is something the international community must talk about with the Taliban.”

She cited changes such as improved access to basic necessities, with 70 percent of Afghans now having access to clean drinking water and 90 percent having access to electricity, in addition to better health care for women.

“But what is clear is that the Taliban are reality in Afghanistan and many people are afraid,” Ms. Merkel said. “This new reality is bitter, but we must come to terms with it.”

Germany pulled its last contingent of soldiers, about 570 troops, out of Afghanistan in June, but several hundred Germans were still engaged in development work funded by Berlin, and the German government believed they would be able to remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces.

Ms. Merkel defended her government’s decision to leave development workers on the ground, saying that they had hoped to continue to provide essential support for Afghans after the troop withdrawal, and that an earlier retreat could have appeared as if they were abandoning people.

“At that time there were very good reasons to stand beside the people in Afghanistan after the troops were gone,” Ms. Merkel said.

But the opposition leaders criticized her government for not developing a plan to bring people to safety in the spring, when other European countries were evacuating citizens and Afghan support staff.

“The situation in Afghanistan is a catastrophe, but it did not come out of nowhere,” said Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democratic Party, which together with the Green Party petitioned Parliament in June to begin evacuations of German staff and Afghans who could be in danger.

Ms. Merkel did not apologize, instead calling for a deeper examination of where the West went wrong in Afghanistan and what lessons could be learned. That will be the work of the next government, as she is stepping down after the German elections on Sept. 26.

“Many things in history take a long time. That is why we must not and will not forget Afghanistan,” said Ms. Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany.

“Even if it doesn’t look like it in this bitter hour,” she said, “I remain convinced that no force or ideology can resist the drive for justice and peace.”

Members of the Afghan robotics team met Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, left, in Mexico City  on Tuesday.
Credit…Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

Five young women who are part of a famed Afghan robotics team — which had been a symbol of opportunities for women and girls in a post-Taliban Afghanistan — have arrived in Mexico as part of the first group of evacuees to land there.

“They will be received with great affection by the people of Mexico,” Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, said at a news conference at Mexico City’s international airport late on Tuesday. “They are bearers of a dream: to show that we can have an egalitarian, fraternal and gender-equal world.”

Mr. Ebrard has led Mexico’s efforts to evacuate people from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover this month, cutting through a typically lengthy immigration process to provide immediate protection. A group of Afghans who worked for The New York Times, along with their families, also arrived safely in Mexico on Wednesday.

Images shared by the Foreign Ministry showed the group that included the robotics team arriving aboard a Lufthansa plane and being greeted by Mexican officials. Some of the young women, all wearing masks because of the pandemic, put their hands to their hearts and nodded their heads as they disembarked.

An institution based in Mexico, which was unnamed, has offered accommodations, food and basic services for the young women, according to a statement released by the Foreign Ministry.

Other team members had fled to Qatar earlier in the week, and some remained in Afghanistan, according to a statement issued by the team’s founder, the Afghan tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob.

Ms. Mahboob said that those who remained behind faced a worrying future under the Taliban, which banned education for girls when the group last ruled the country.

The young women were part of a robotics team that gained international attention in 2017 when they were denied visas to the United States for a competition in Washington.

Members of Congress signed a petition, and President Donald J. Trump intervened to get travel documents for them on humanitarian grounds. Once back in Afghanistan, they were received as icons of progress, though some accused them of dressing immodestly while abroad and said they had compromised their prospects for marriage.

U.S. military personnel on a guard tower at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. military undertakes its final withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials are reluctant to offer an estimate of one significant number: how many people ultimately are seeking to be evacuated.

U.S. officials say they believe that thousands of Americans remain in Afghanistan, including some far beyond Kabul, without a safe or fast way to get to the airport. Tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government over the past 20 years, and are eligible for special visas, are desperate to leave.

Refugee and resettlement experts estimate that at least 300,000 Afghans are in imminent danger of being targeted by the Taliban for associating with Americans and U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

But administration officials say the numbers are continually changing, especially since other countries have their own evacuation operations. And while the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is contacting Americans who are believed to be in Afghanistan, the alerts are going only to Americans who provided the government their location before Kabul fell or in the week since.

“It’s our responsibility to find them, which we are now doing hour by hour,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said on Monday.

Families hoping to flee Afghanistan arrived at the airport at dawn on Tuesday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The United States has started to reduce its military presence at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as President Biden signaled that he will stick to his Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan.

A Defense Department official said that of the 5,800 Marines and soldiers at the airport, about 300 who were considered not essential to the evacuation operation had left the country.

Mr. Biden has left the door open to maintaining the U.S. military presence — now at 5,800 Marines and soldiers — at the airport beyond the deadline. But he does not want to do so, administration officials said, and the Taliban has warned of “consequences” if the United States military stays beyond the deadline.

The Pentagon will probably add additional military bases in the United States to provide temporary housing for Afghan refugees, the Pentagon press secretary, John F. Kirby, said. Discussing the evacuations, he said, “our plan is to continue this pace as aggressively as we can.”

Still, bottlenecks at the airport and at the bases around the world where the people are being temporarily housed could stand in the way, officials said. In particular, they pointed to the bureaucratic process of vetting people.

Mr. Kirby said Afghan allies of the United States, who fear reprisals from the Taliban, were still being processed at the Kabul airport, although several times over the past week the airport’s gates have been shuttered because of the surge of people.

And a Taliban spokesman said on Tuesday that the group’s fighters would physically block Afghans from going to the airport.

A defaced beauty shop window display in Kabul on Sunday.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

When the Taliban were last in power, Afghan women were generally not allowed to leave their homes except under certain narrowly defined conditions. Those who did risked being beaten, tortured or executed.

In the days since the Taliban swept back into control, their leaders have insisted that this time will be different. Women, they say, will be allowed to work. Girls will be free to attend school. At least within the confines of their interpretation of Islam.

But early signs have not been promising, and that pattern continued on Tuesday with a statement from a Taliban spokesman that women should stay home, at least for now. Why? Because some of the militants have not yet been trained not to hurt them, he said.

The spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, called it a “temporary” policy intended to protect women until the Taliban could ensure their safety.

“We are worried our forces who are new and have not been yet trained very well may mistreat women,” Mr. Mujahid said. “We don’t want our forces, God forbid, to harm or harass women.”

Mr. Mujahid said that women should stay home “until we have a new procedure,” and that “their salaries will paid in their homes.”

His statement echoed comments from Ahmadullah Waseq, the deputy of the Taliban’s cultural affairs committee, who told The New York Times this week that the Taliban had “no problem with working women,” as long as they wore hijabs.

But, he said: “For now, we are asking them to stay home until the situation gets normal. Now it is a military situation.”

During the first years of Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, women were forbidden to work outside the home or even to leave the house without a male guardian. They could not attend school, and faced public flogging if they were found to have violated morality rules, like one requiring that they be fully covered.

The claim that restrictions on women’s lives are a temporary necessity is not new to Afghan women. The Taliban made similar claims the last time they controlled Afghanistan, said Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.

“The explanation was that the security was not good, and they were waiting for security to be better, and then women would be able to have more freedom,” she said. “But of course in those years they were in power, that moment never arrived — and I can promise you Afghan women hearing this today are thinking it will never arrive this time either.”

Brian Castner, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International who was in Afghanistan until last week, said that if the Taliban intended to treat women better, they would need to retrain their forces. “You can’t have a movement like the Taliban that has operated a certain way for 25 years and then just because you take over a government, all of the fighters and everyone in your organization just does something differently,” he said.

But, Mr. Castner said, there is no indication that the Taliban intend to fulfill that or any other promises of moderation. Amnesty International has received reports of fighters going door to door with lists of names, despite their leaders’ public pledges not to retaliate against Afghans who worked with the previous government.

“The rhetoric and the reality are not matching at all, and I think that the rhetoric is more than just disingenuous,” Mr. Castner said. “If a random Taliban fighter commits a human rights abuse or violation, that’s just kind of random violence, that’s one thing. But if there’s a systematic going to people’s homes and looking for people, that’s not a random fighter that’s untrained — that’s a system working. The rhetoric is a cover for what’s really happening.”

In Kabul on Wednesday, women in parts of the city with minimal Taliban presence were going out “with normal clothes, as it was before the Taliban,” said a resident named Shabaka. But in central areas with many Taliban fighters, few women ventured out, and those who did wore burqas, said Sayed, a civil servant.

Ms. Barr, of Human Rights Watch, said that in the week since the Taliban said the new government would preserve women’s rights “within the bounds of Islamic law,” the Afghan women she has spoken to offered the same skeptical assessment: “They’re trying to look normal and legitimate, and this will last as long as the international community and the international press are still there. And then we’ll see what they’re really like again.”

It might not take long, Ms. Barr suggested.

“This announcement just highlights to me that they don’t feel like they need to wait,” she said.

Waiting near the north gate of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

At least 51 people who fled from Afghanistan landed in Uganda on Wednesday, the authorities said, the first to arrive in an African nation amid the race to complete such evacuations before the United States withdraws its military from Afghanistan by the month’s end.

Uganda said last week that it was preparing to temporarily host evacuees from Afghanistan after a request from the U.S. government. The East African nation is Africa’s top refugee-hosting nation — with nearly 1.5 million displaced people living within its borders — and the top fourth refugee host in the world, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

The evacuees’ arrival came 10 days after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan and hours after President Biden said the United States was on pace for its withdrawal by the Aug. 31 deadline. Their arrival also came as the Pentagon said it had airlifted its biggest daily number of evacuees from Kabul’s airport on Tuesday. Some of those are now reaching countries that, like Uganda, agreed to serve as temporary transit stops.

In Uganda on Wednesday morning, the evacuees underwent a security screening and were tested for the coronavirus, the Foreign Ministry said. News outlets shared photos on social media of them arriving at a local hotel.

Ugandan officials have said that the United States is paying for the evacuees’ upkeep, with aid groups like Mercy Corps also promising to step in.

The Foreign Ministry said there had also been plans to have some Ugandans travel on the chartered flight, but because of “challenges of accessing the airport in Kabul, they were unable to make it.”

Arrangements were being made to evacuate those Ugandan citizens on a subsequent flight, the ministry said.

The authorities did not specify the nationalities of the people who arrived in Uganda on Monday. But Okello Oryem, a junior minister in the Foreign Ministry, said in an interview that Afghans and people from other countries, including from Europe and the United States, were also expected.

U.S. officials have been in touch with countries around the world — including Canada, Kuwait, Mexico and Qatar — that have agreed to serve as transit stops or announced an intention to grant refugee status or resettlement for people fleeing Afghanistan.

The United States provides more than $970 million in development and military aid to Uganda annually. It supports education and agriculture, and provides antiretroviral treatment for more than 990,000 Ugandans who are H.I.V.-positive.

President Yoweri Museveni — who has ruled Uganda with an iron fist since 1986 and was re-elected to a sixth term in January after a bloody election — is also a key U.S. military ally, deploying troops to fight the Qaeda-linked group Al Shabab in Somalia.

Uganda now hosts nearly 1.5 million refugees who have fled violence in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan — conflicts that, critics point out, Mr. Museveni’s government has meddled in.

The authorities did not specify how evacuees would be arriving from Afghanistan. And Mr. Oryem said the government would not rush them to leave.

“These are people who are traumatized and have gone through difficulties,” he said.

The New York Times’s Afghanistan staff and their families arriving at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City on Wednesday.
Credit…Azam Ahmed/The New York Times

A group of Afghans who worked for The New York Times, along with their families, touched down safely early Wednesday — not in New York or Washington, but at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City.

Mexican officials, unlike their counterparts in the United States, were able to cut through the red tape of their immigration system to quickly provide documents that, in turn, allowed the Afghans to fly from Kabul’s embattled airport to Qatar.

The documents promised that the Afghans would receive temporary humanitarian protection in Mexico while they explored further options in the United States or elsewhere.

“We are right now committed to a foreign policy promoting free expression, liberties and feminist values,” Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said in a telephone interview.

He cited a national tradition of welcoming people including the 19th-century Cuban independence leader José Martí, German Jews and South Americans fleeing coups, and he said that Mexico had opened its doors to the Afghan journalists “in order to protect them and to be consistent with this policy.”

But the path of the Afghan journalists and their families to Mexico was as arbitrary, personal and tenuous as anything else in the frantic and scattershot evacuation of Kabul.

Ahmad Massoud during a ceremony to commemorate his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, in Kabul last September.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Just days after the Taliban swept into Kabul and toppled Afghanistan’s government, a group of former mujahedeen fighters and Afghan commandos said they had begun a war of resistance in the last area of the country that is not under Taliban control: a narrow valley with a history of repelling invaders.

The man leading them is Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of the storied mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. And their struggle faces long odds: The resistance fighters are surrounded by the Taliban, have supplies that will soon start dwindling and have no visible outside support.

For now the resistance has merely two assets: the Panjshir Valley, 70 miles north of Kabul, which has a history of repelling invaders, and the legendary Massoud name.

Spokesmen for Ahmad Massoud insist that he has attracted thousands of soldiers to the valley, including remnants of the Afghan Army’s special forces and some of his father’s experienced guerrilla commanders, as well as activists and others who reject the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.

The spokesmen, some of whom were with him in the Panjshir Valley and some who were outside the country drumming up support, said that Mr. Massoud has stocks of weapons and matériel, including American helicopters, but needs more.

‘‘We’re waiting for some opportunity, some support,” said Hamid Saifi, a former colonel in the Afghan National Army, and now a commander in Mr. Massoud’s resistance, who was reached in the Panjshir Valley by telephone on Sunday. “Maybe some countries will be ready for this great work. So far, all countries we talked to are quiet. America, Europe, China, Russia, all of them are quiet.’’

Gathering outside the airport in Kabul this week. Biden administration officials argued that the two House members’ trip there diverted badly needed resources from the evacuation effort.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Two members of Congress secretly flew to Kabul without authorization on Tuesday to witness the frenzied evacuation of Americans and Afghans, infuriating Biden administration officials and prompting Speaker Nancy Pelosi to urge other lawmakers not to follow their example.

The two members — Representatives Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan, both veterans — said in a statement that the purpose of their trip was “to provide oversight on the executive branch.” Both lawmakers have blistered the Biden administration in recent weeks, accusing top officials of dragging their feet on evacuating American citizens and Afghan allies.

“There is no place in the world right now where oversight matters more,” they said.

Credit…Erin Schaff for The New York Times
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

But administration officials were furious that Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer had entered Afghanistan on an unauthorized, undisclosed trip, arguing that efforts to tend to the lawmakers had drained resources badly needed to help evacuate those already in the country.

The trip was reported earlier by The Associated Press.

Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer said that they had left Afghanistan “on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence,” and that they had taken other steps to “minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground.” They were in Kabul for less than 24 hours.

Still, Ms. Pelosi pressed other lawmakers not to do the same.

“Member travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding countries would unnecessarily divert needed resources from the priority mission of safely and expeditiously evacuating Americans and Afghans at risk from Afghanistan,” Ms. Pelosi wrote in a letter. She did not refer to Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer by name.

In their statement on Tuesday night, the congressmen sharpened their criticism of the administration’s handling of the evacuation, saying that “Washington should be ashamed of the position we put our service members in” and that the situation they had witnessed on the ground was more dire than they had expected.

“After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late,” they wrote, “that no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time.”

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