ISTANBUL — Thousands of desperate Afghans trying to escape the Taliban takeover swarmed Kabul’s main international airport on Monday, rushing the boarding gates, mobbing the runways, clambering atop the wings of jets and even trying to cling to the fuselage of departing American military planes.
At least half a dozen Afghans were killed in the chaos, some falling from the skies as they lost their grasp, and at least two shot by American soldiers trying to contain the surging crowds.
The images evoked America’s frantic departure from Vietnam, encapsulating Afghanistan’s breathtaking collapse in the wake of American abandonment.
As American troops sought to manage the exodus, seizing air traffic control to prioritize military flights evacuating Western citizens and flying Apache helicopters low over the crowds to clear the runway, Taliban fighters capped a swift and devastating lunge for power, posing for an iconic photo behind the ornate presidential desk in the presidential palace hours after President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country.
In a video broadcast on Al Jazeera, the head of the Afghan presidential guard shook hands with a Taliban commander. “I say welcome to them, and I congratulate them,” the official said.
Taliban fighters spread out across the streets of the capital on Monday, riding motorbikes and driving police vehicles and Humvees seized from the government security forces. Armed fighters occupied the Parliament, some visited the homes of government officials, confiscating possessions and vehicles, while others made a show of directing traffic.
Taliban officials promised safety to civilians and urged them to stay, but the mobs at the Hamid Karzai International Airport revealed the depths of panic and despair of Afghans who feared reprisal killings and a return to the Taliban’s draconian rule.
“Our situation is bitter,” said one Afghan man, whose name was not published to protect him from retribution from the Taliban. Speaking amid a din of hundreds of people talking and children crying, he said: “There is no water or food. Now we have moved to a different location, but we are not sure when we will be given a flight out.”
President Biden, speaking at the White House on Monday afternoon, acknowledged that the withdrawal was “messy,” but rejected the Vietnam analogy, defending his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and blaming the country’s military and political leaders for failing to stand up for themselves after two decades of American support.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
He said he had urged Afghanistan’s political leaders to engage in real diplomacy. “This advice was flatly refused,” he said.
But the ugly scenes at the airport, which quickly circulated around the world, seemed to speak louder than words.
In one extraordinary scene filmed by Afghan media, hundreds of people ran alongside an American military C-17 cargo plane and some tried to climb into the wheel wells or cling to the sides of the plane as it gathered speed, a striking symbol of America’s military might flying away even as Afghans hung on against all hope.
An American military official confirmed that some Afghans were killed, either crushed by the plane on takeoff or falling to their deaths.
American troops fatally shot at least two armed men who approached the Americans at the airport security perimeter and brandished their weapons, according to a U.S. military official.
An Afghan man, who was waiting with his family to be evacuated, said that several people were killed as American troops opened fire to stop the surging crowds. He said he saw two bodies on the ground covered with sheets but understood at least three people, including a woman, had died in one episode, around 10 in the morning, and more died in a second shooting.
The scale of the chaos laid bare how unprepared much of the international presence in Afghanistan was for a Taliban victory. Turkey, which had offered to maintain troops to secure the airport after the American withdrawal, indicated that it was dropping its plans Monday evening, Reuters reported.
“It is untenable,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, “We have no idea what Taliban 2.0 might be like.”
Thousands of people camped out through the night in the departure lounges of the civilian terminals waiting for flights out of the country. Many of them were employees of international organizations and media companies who had been targeted by the Taliban and feared for their safety under a Taliban-run state.
White House aides said that several thousand American troops were in the process of securing the airport. But some Afghans said their priority was evacuating Americans and other Westerners, not Afghans.
An employee of an international organization had a confirmed seat on a Turkish Airlines flight but was bumped off the flight by American troops in favor of U.S. citizens, according to a colleague.
And after American troops took over air traffic control, commercial air traffic was largely halted in order to move the military flights in an out.
Mr. Biden has vowed to rescue the thousands of Afghans who had helped Americans during the two-decade conflict, but the fate of many who remained in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan was uncertain. The U.S. government said that in the coming days it would evacuate thousands of American citizens, embassy employees and their families, and “particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”
The State Department said the United States evacuated 1,600 people from Afghanistan over the weekend, bringing the total number of people flown out to 3,600 since mid-July. The Pentagon said Monday evening that in the previous 48 hours some 700 Afghans who worked with the United States, along with their families, had been evacuated. The Pentagon is hoping to evacuate up to 5,000 people per day by later this week.
Other countries were also scrambling to evacuate their citizens. British officials said they were confident that they could remove some 3,000 Britons thought to be in Afghanistan but they said they were less sure about being able to provide a safe exit to the Afghans who aided the British and whose lives could now be at risk.
For much of Sunday and Monday there was no security on the civilian side of the airport, after government police and airport security forces left their posts, ceding ground as Taliban forces began occupying the city Saturday night.
As security deteriorated, many of those who had been promised flights out abandoned the effort and headed home back into a city where the Taliban was tightening its control.
One Afghan man who had been scheduled to fly out on Monday said he visited the airport and after seeing the madness decided not even to try to bring his family there.
In Kabul, residents began tearing down advertisements that showed women without head scarves for fear of upsetting the Taliban, whose ideology excludes women from much of public life. Some police officers were taken into custody by Taliban fighters, while others were seen changing into civilian clothes and trying to flee.
A freelance journalist said he took some documents he though might incriminate him to a neighbor who was Pashtun, the same ethnic group as the Taliban, and asked his to hide them.
“I was having anxiety attacks imagining the Taliban would raid my house and beat me up for wearing shorts or arrest me because I was a journalist,” said the journalist, Ammar, who asked his last name not be published for fear of retribution. “So I changed into traditional Afghan clothes that I know the Taliban approve of to protect myself.”
The military reopened the airport for flights on Monday afternoon, the Pentagon said, and flights of U.S. military planes bringing thousands of Marine and Army reinforcements resumed. About 3,500 U.S. Marines and soldiers were expected to be at the airport by Monday evening, with another 2,500 troops en route, Pentagon officials said.
By early evening the Taliban began exerting more control around the airport. Residents living nearby said shops and homes in the neighborhood had been looted but since the Taliban had arrived they felt a bit safer.
At dusk they heard gunfire erupting from the airport as Taliban fighters entered the outer compound of the airport, and opened fire to disperse the crowds.
The Afghan man interviewed earlier in the day said he was about to be processed for departure around 8 p.m., after a wait of more than 36 hours, when the Taliban arrived and began beating people to break up the crowd.
“They beat us with their rifle butts and I am slightly injured,” he said. His wife and son also caught blows, he said. “It was a very dangerous situation but we managed to escape. Thank God that we managed to get out of the airport. I am going back home.”
In a harbinger of the harsh rule that many Afghans have dreaded, the Taliban allowed people to leave the airport but one employee of a European organization who was trying to enter the airport was told that no one would be allowed to leave the country now without permission from the “new government.”
In a video posted on Facebook a Taliban commander driving a government police pickup truck outside the airport was asked about the hundreds of people seeking to fly out of the country. “They should not go,” he answered. “We will be here and we will bring peace and security now that we have left the corrupt regime behind us.”
Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Lara Jakes contributed reporting from Washington, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.