Kabul runways clear; chaos reigns as crowds push to join evacuation

The runway at Kabul's airport is free for take-off and landing again, according to a tweet by NATO's representative in Afghanistan, indicating evacuation efforts can resume on Tuesday, after a day of confusion and crowds amid the Taliban takeover.

Kabul, 17 August 2021 (dpa/MIA) – The runway at Kabul’s airport is free for take-off and landing again, according to a tweet by NATO’s representative in Afghanistan, indicating evacuation efforts can resume on Tuesday, after a day of confusion and crowds amid the Taliban takeover.

“I see airplanes landing and taking off,” wrote Stefano Pontecorvo on his Twitter feed.

Flights had to be suspended on Monday amid chaos at the airport. Masses of people have crowded the airport, which they see as the only way to escape Afghanistan after Taliban forces took effective control of the country on Sunday.

The crowds – which included embassy staff, local hires, foreign nationals and many who simply fear that the Taliban will impose a repressive Islamist rule – spilled out onto the runways on Monday, crowding any plane that landed and making arrivals and departures impossible.

Images circulated online of planes full of Afghan refugees taking off after officials decided not to try to keep them out. There were also reports of people falling to their deaths after they lost their grip while clinging to the outside of departing planes.

But US forces, which still control parts of the airport, are seeking to maintain order. Both local US representatives and US President Joe Biden have warned of repercussions if the US forces at the airport are targeted.

It remains unclear though, how quickly the operations will resume.

“The evacuations [from the Kabul airport] will resume within one or two days once security there is fully restored,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a joint press conference on Tuesday with his Jordanian counterpart in Amman.

“We are doing what is necessary for safe departure of those seeking to leave the country,” Cavusoglu said, recalling that the Turkish military had undertaken security at the Kabul airport.

It was not clear if he was speaking solely about Turkish operations or evacuations in general. Although Pontecorvo of NATO said planes were coming and going, it’s also true that US forces have said they need to bring in people to restore security before operations can go ahead.

The Taliban ruled the bulk of Afghanistan for about five years at the end of the 20th century. During that time, they enforced a strictly Islamist society, which meant most women were banned from public life and men could be punished for not displaying enough piety. Perceived vices, such as alcohol and Western music, were banned.

Although the Taliban have said they will not be as strict after routing the Western-backed government in a lightning series of offensives in the last two weeks, few believe them and are not willing to take their chances under a renewed Taliban regime.

While some Western governments have vowed to try to bring home interpreters and other Afghan locals who have helped them, it is not clear if there is enough time or space to get them all out. Many at the airport have no papers, so it’s impossible to tell most people’s status.

One witness said on Tuesday that hundreds of people were trying to force their way onto airport property on Tuesday, but were being pushed back by Taliban fighters, who were using whips and tear gas to push them back, while firing shots into the air.

Nonetheless, the crowds kept making the attempt.

Emergency, a non-governmental organization that runs a hospital in central Kabul, reported that it admitted eight badly wounded patients on Monday, while 46 slightly wounded people were taken to other facilities. Another nine people were dead on arrival.

Nonetheless, the Taliban seemed to be trying to spread calm and limit violence.

For example, Mullah Yaqoob, head of the Taliban’s military commission, has apparently told his fighters that private homes in Kabul are off limits and personal cars should not be stolen. The orders were shared as an audio message to local TV broadcaster ToloNews

“We have just arrived into … Kabul. No one should enter people’s houses or take their vehicles, under no circumstances. If an official or an individual do this, this is a treason to the system; this is a treason to the bloods of the martyrs and is considered as theft.”

The message comes amid fears that Taliban fighters will either exact revenge on urban dwellers not seen as sufficiently pious and that common criminals will take advantage of the confusion now that the Taliban is taking control to engage in looting.

Speaking from Amman, Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said Ankara finds initial remarks by the Taliban leadership “positive.”

Nonetheless, multiple countries are seeking to pull out their nationals amid the uncertainty, though the chaos at the airport is making that difficult. A German plane had to depart with only seven evacuees because of the breakdown in security.

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