The chop of US military helicopters whisking American diplomats to Kabul’s airport on Sunday punctuated a frantic rush by thousands of other foreigners and Afghans to flee to safety as well, as a stunningly swift Taliban takeover reached Afghanistan’s capital.
US reports of gunfire at the airport threatened to shut down one of the last avenues of escape in an ever-more chaotic and compressed evacuation.
NATO allies that had pulled out their forces ahead of the Biden administration’s intended Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline were rushing troops back in this weekend to airlift their citizens, while the Pentagon was sending in fresh reinforcements.
Some complained the US was failing to move fast enough to bring to safety the Afghans who fear retribution from the Taliban for past work with the Americans and other NATO forces.
“This is murder by incompetence,” said US Air Force veteran Sam Lerman, struggling Sunday from his home in Woodbridge, Virginia, to find a way out for an Afghan contractor who had guarded Americans and other NATO forces at Afghanistan’s Bagram air base for a decade.
Massouma Tajik, a 22-year-old data analyst, was among hundreds of Afghans waiting anxiously in the Kabul airport to board an evacuation flight.
“I see people crying, they are not sure whether their flight will happen or not. Neither am I,” she said by phone, with panic in her voice.
Educated Afghan women have some of the most to lose under the fundamentalist Taliban, whose past government, overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2001, sought to largely confine women to the home.
Taliban forces moved early Sunday into a capital beset by fear and declared they were awaiting a peaceful surrender, capping a stunning sweep of Afghanistan in just the past week.
That arrival of the first waves of Taliban insurgents into Kabul prompted the US to evacuate the embassy in full, apparently leaving only a core of US diplomats at the airport for the time being. Even as CH-47 helicopters shuttled American diplomats to the airport, and facing criticism at home over the administration’s handling of the withdrawal, Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the 1975 fall of Saigon.