The Taliban has said it will ‘provoke a reaction’ and has threatened ‘consequences’ if the US does not leave Afghanistan by August 31 and chooses to extend the deadline for the withdrawal of troops.
President Joe Biden wants all Americans to have left the country by the end of the month although he admitted on Sunday night that an extension was under discussion, while this morning UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the evacuation effort is ‘down to hours now, not weeks’.
Taliban spokesman Dr Suhail Shaheen said the group will not accept an extension to the deadline and warned of retaliation if Western forces extend their ‘occupation’ since the group dramatically swept to power.
Biden appeared to push back on extending the August 31 deadline last night, saying the evacuation process is going to be ‘hard and painful’ and there will be ‘discussions’ about how long it will take.
The President also confirmed during the press conference that as many as 11,000 people had been evacuated from the airport in the last 36 hours – and that the US has so far transported around 33,000 to safety, including 2,500 Americans.
He said that U.S. forces had expanded the perimeter around the airport amid fears terrorists may seek to exploit the operation by attacking Americans or Afghan civilians.
And during the early hours of this morning, US soldiers at the airport in Kabul, alongside German forces, were engaged in a gunfight with ‘unknown attackers’ – which resulted in the death of one member of the Afgahn security force, and three additional injuries.
Taliban spokesman Dr Suhail Shaheen (pictured) has warned of ‘consequences’ if Western forces stay beyond the end of the month
Speaking last night at a press conference, President Biden appeared to push back on extending the August 31 deadline last night, saying the evacuation process is going to be ‘hard and painful’ and there will be ‘discussions’ about how long it will take
Speaking about the US’ deadline of August 31, Dr Suhail Shaheen told Sky News: ‘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.
‘If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations – the answer is no. Or there would be consequences.
‘It will create mistrust between us. If they are intent on continuing the occupation it will provoke a reaction.’
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to press Biden and other G7 leaders to delay the final withdrawal in a virtual call on Tuesday, despite his armed forces minister warning Kabul will become a ‘warzone’ if the West stay and ignore the Taliban’s demands.
Biden said last night: ‘Let me be clear – the evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful.
‘No matter when it started, when we began. It would have been true if we had started a month ago, or a month from now.
‘There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see on television. It’s just a fact.’
He said about 11,000 people were lifted out of Kabul in less than 36 hours, bringing the total to 33,000, and said defense officials ‘hope’ they will not have to extend the evacuation operation.
However in a glimmer of hope that an extension was still possible, he added: ‘There are going to be discussions I suspect on how far along we are in the process.
‘Our first priority in Kabul is getting American citizens out of the situation as quickly and safely as possible,’ Biden said.
‘Any American that wants to get home will get home.’
He also said the US government is ‘looking to move our Afghan allies’ out of the country as well, noting that citizens of NATO allies and Afghan allies were amongst the 11,000 individuals evacuated this past weekend.
He added that US forces had expanded the perimeter around the airport amid fears terrorists may seek to exploit the operation by attacking Americans or Afghan civilians.
Defense officials ‘hope’ they will not have to extend the evacuation operation, Biden said, but ‘there are going to be discussions I suspect on how far along we are in the process.’
He also said troops were maintaining constant vigilance against terrorist threats, particularly from the local affiliate of ISIS, sworn enemies of the both the U.S. and the Taliban.
‘The security threat is changing rapidly,’ he said. ‘There are civilians crowded at the airport, although we have cleared thousands of them.
‘We know that terrorists may seek to exploit the situation and target innocent Afghans or American troops.’
Every day that American troops and civilians are at the airport is another day of risk that terrorists launch an attack from distance.
But he said the Taliban had been helpful.
‘We discussed a lot with the Taliban,’ he said. ‘They’ve been cooperative in extending some of the perimeter.’
But he declined to describe further ‘technical changes’ designed to improve security.
‘So far the Taliban has not taken action against U.S. forces,’ he said, rapping his knuckles on the lectern as if knocking on wood.
‘So far they have, by and large, followed through on what they said in terms of Americans to pass through.
‘And I’m sure they don’t control all of their forces. It’s a rag tag force.
‘And so we’ll see if what they say turns out to be true.’
The original evacuation agreement was reached with senior Taliban officials after a sit down in Qatar with General Frank McKenzie.
It was agreed between the two parties that a ‘deconfliction mechanism’ would be put in place to allow the evacuation operation from the airport in Kabul to run smoothly and without Taliban interference.
Speaking about the US’ deadline of August 31, Dr Suhail Shaheen told Sky News : ‘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’
During the early hours of this morning, US soldiers at the airport in Kabul, alongside German forces, were engaged in a gunfight with ‘unknown attackers’ – which resulted in the death of one member of the Afgahn security force, and three additional injuries. Pictured: Soldiers of the Turkish Task Force patrol the Hamid Karzai International Airport this morning
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby disclosed on Tuesday that US officers were speaking with Taliban commanders ‘multiple times a day’ about avoiding conflict at the airport, but several Afghans have been killed or injured outside the airstrip by advancing Taliban forces.
And General McKenzie said any attempts by the Taliban to interfere with rescue operations ‘will be met with overwhelming force.
The Taliban had previously agreeing to allow ‘safe passage’ from Afghanistan for civilians who want to leave, according to President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday.
Sullivan acknowledged reports that some civilians were encountering resistance – ‘being turned away or pushed back or even beaten’ – as they tried to reach the Kabul international airport.
But he said ‘very large numbers’ were reaching the airport and the problem of the others was being taken up with the Taliban, whose stunningly swift takeover of the country on Sunday plunged the US evacuation effort into chaos, confusion and violence.
The UK wants to double its Kabul airlift numbers to 12,000 this week, but Johnson accepts that the success of the mission is reliant on US troops maintaining control of Kabul airport.
Evacuees from Afghanistan as they arrive in an Airbus A400 transport aircraft of the German Air Force Luftwaffe in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Afghan families enter into Pakistan through a border crossing point in Chaman, Pakistan
UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace conceded the his country’s involvement will end when the US leaves, saying: ‘The Prime Minister is, obviously at the G7, going to try and raise the prospect of seeing if the United States will extend.
‘It’s really important for people to understand the United States have over 6,000 people in Kabul airport and when they withdraw that will take away the framework … and we will have to go as well.
‘I don’t think there is any likelihood of staying on after the United States. If their timetable extends even by a day or two, that will give us a day or two more to evacuate people.
‘Because we are really down to hours now, not weeks, and we have to make sure we exploit every minute to get people out.’
In his sit-down interview, Dr Shaheen also claimed people are not fleeing Afghanistan because they are scared, saying it was purely ‘economic migration’, despite the desperate scenes at Kabul airport.
He added it was ‘fake news’ that girls’ schools are being closed amid reports of the Taliban going door to door and threatening people while seeking former government workers.
Many women are fearful that the new regime will erode rights which they have fought for.
But Dr Shaheen insisted: ‘They will lose nothing. Only if they have no hijab, they will have a hijab… women are required to have the same rights as you have in your country but with a hijab.’
He added that women teachers and journalists are continuing to work despite the recent upheaval, despite stories of women being scared to leave their homes and return to work.
People stand on a barrier outside Kabul airport, Afghanistan, after the Taliban takeover of the city last week
Boris Johnson (pictured left) will attempt to persuade US President Joe Biden (pictured right) to keep American troops in Afghanistan beyond his August 31 deadline when the two leaders take part in a G7 meeting this week
Biden said he had directed the State Department to contact Americans stranded in the country, where Taliban checkpoints are in place.
‘We’re executing a plan to move groups of these Americans to safety and to safely and effectively move them to the airport compound. For security reasons, I’m not going to go into detail … but I will say again today what I’ve said before: Any American who wants to get home will get home.’
Afghan allies of the West and vulnerable Afghans such as women activists and journalists would be helped too, he said.
Meanwhile, 500 tonnes of medical supplies including surgical equipment and childhood pneumonia treatments due to be delivered to Afghanistan this week are stuck because of Kabul airport restrictions.
‘They were ready and planned to be delivered to Afghanistan to arrive this week. But now that the airport is closed to commercial flights, we can no longer get them in,’ said World Health Organisation spokesperson Inas Hamam.
She said the WHO was calling for empty planes to divert to its storage hub in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to collect the supplies on their way to pick up evacuees from the country.
One of those who managed to flee amid the pandemonium at Kabul airport was an Uber driver who had spent three days desperately trying to escape from the Taliban.
Helmand Khan was flown to safety on an RAF flight with his children after he visited relatives in Afghanistan.
The taxi driver from West London was earlier seen thrusting his British passport at TV crews as he tried to enter a compound where the British Embassy is housing evacuees.
Helmand Khan was flown to safety on an RAF flight with his children after spending three days desperately trying to flee
He told the BBC: ‘You’ve seen by British passport, these are my children! I came in the morning, five o’clock, but I’m still waiting. In the last three days I am trying to go inside.’
Amid the chaos, a firefight broke out between unidentified gunmen, Western security forces and Afghan guards at Kabul airport last night.
One Afghan guard was killed and three others were injured in the battle, which also involved US and German forces, the German military said on Twitter.
The report did not specifying whether the dead Afghan was one of the Taliban fighters deployed to guard the airport.
The airport has been a scene of chaos since the Taliban seized the Afghan capital on August 15 as UK and international forces try to evacuate citizens and vulnerable Afghans.
British armed forces minister James Heappey acknowledged that ‘when the US go, the mission has to come to an end’ in Afghanistan as the Prime Minister prepares to issue the plea to the American president.
The leaders will speak during an emergency G7 summit on Tuesday as the Government presses for American troops to remain beyond August to secure the capital’s airport for rescue flights.
Ministers still want to evacuate thousands more people including UK passport holders and those under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) scheme.
Mr Heappey said the evacuation mission is ‘fundamentally underpinned by a US presence’, and it would have to end without American troops.
‘Whether or not the US can be persuaded to stay is a matter for the Prime Minister tomorrow in the G7 meeting after the initial overtures made by both the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary in the days previous,’ he told Sky News.
‘But the conversation with the Taliban will then follow, and the Taliban will have a choice: they can either seek to engage with the international community and show that they want to be a part of the international system, they want to be engaged in international diplomacy, or they can turn around and say there is no opportunity for an extension.
‘I think everybody has to be clear that this is not just a discussion that happens between G7 leaders tomorrow, it is a discussion which happens with the Taliban.’
He acknowledged not everybody will be able to be evacuated, as he said there are still ‘thousands more’ people the UK wishes to evacuate, including British nationals.
The Foreign Office said it had sent five extra staff to Kabul airport, taking its total working on the evacuation effort in the capital to 19.
Mr Heappey elaborated to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme by saying that the Taliban, which swept to power last week as the US withdrew its troops, ‘gets a vote’ on the evacuation deadline.
‘It’s just the reality, we could deny them the vote, we have the military power to just stay there by force, but I don’t know that the humanitarian mission we’re embarked on at the moment which is to evacuate as many people from Kabul as we possibly can is helped by Kabul becoming a warzone,’ the minister said.
He added: ‘I think in all reality given what Nato allies have in country at the moment, the period of time it would take to get in place a replacement force is not realistic, I think the reality is that the die is cast, the United States air force is operating Kabul airport, it is entirely a military airport.
Evacuations have been underway in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control of the country on August 13 after American troops were pulled from the country
‘When the US go, the mission has to come to an end.’
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace held talks with their Washington counterparts over the weekend to call for an extension.
Government officials said there is ‘no fixed date’ on when the UK will withdraw, but it is feared that without US boots on the ground, the remaining allied forces would be unable to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport from the crowds looking to flee the Taliban takeover, or other potential security threats.
Meanwhile former British ambassador to the US Lord Kim Darroch said there ‘clearly’ should have been more coordination and planning for an ‘orderly’ exit from Kabul.
He told Radio 4’s Today Programme the soldiers ‘in these appalling circumstances are doing an extraordinary job’, adding that the situation is ‘extraordinarily fragile’, with Taliban forces and British and American forces ‘literally yards apart’.
‘So it’s a very, very tense situation,’ he said.
Asked about the UK’s global response, Lord Darroch said: ‘I think global Britain, post-EU exit, is an interesting and potentially sensible path for the UK to go on.
‘But we’ve reduced our foreign aid, we have done a defence review that does a number of good things but which reduces the size of the British Army, done some trade deals that basically with one exception duplicate EU deals, and we have rather passively acquiesced in a foreign policy disaster that is the Afghan withdrawal.