‘We need to make sure things don’t escalate’: Taliban’s presence at Kabul airport complicates Afghan evacuation

Those being evacuated have to go past Taliban checkpoints where they may have their documents torn up or face physical assault, writes Kim Sengupta in Kabul

Thursday 19 August 2021 19:52
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<p>Hundreds of fleeing Afghans wait outside Kabul airport on Thursday </p>

Hundreds of fleeing Afghans wait outside Kabul airport on Thursday

The two young Talibs were on a low roof next to a building where British soldiers lay exhausted on the ground after another violent night trying to control a swelling crowd desperate to reach the airport and escape out of the country.

The fighters were in a relaxed mood, shouting down jovial remarks in Pashto to the troops who were too tired to respond. After a while the pair, fresh-faced in salwar-kameez, with their Kalashnikov AK-47s slung on their shoulders, got bored and swaggered off, a  brief encounter showing the surreally close proximity between the jihadis and the British force.

The building next to the base was taken over by the Islamists a few days ago and they are now neighbours of the 16th Air Assault Brigade and special forces, part of a military deployment sent to airlift British and Afghan nationals back to the UK.

Those being evacuated have to go past checkpoints manned by comrades of the two fighters, where they may be turned away, have their passport and other travel documents torn up and face physical assault. Those holding foreign passports have an easier chance of running the gauntlet than others.

“We have to keep things calm here and make sure not to raise the temperature, the aim is to get our job done, collect the people we have to and get them out”, said a British officer. “The Taliban control the area around here and what they do affects what we do, so we need to make sure things don’t suddenly escalate.”

British citizens and dual nationals board a military plane in Kabul

But for the throngs of Afghans at the base, waiting to be processed for the journey,  the appearance of the Talibs on the wall was an unnerving experience. “I thought once we were here we would not see them again,”  said Amanullah, 34,  who had arrived with his wife and three children, “this was a bit of shock.”

Amanullah,  who had received threats from the Talibs, did not want his family named made public, He continued: “These men were young, laughing and joking, and they may seem harmless. But the Taliban are not harmless, as people in our country know, as our family knows. My cousin was a policeman and they killed him, they shot him at home, in front of his young boy, they have no mercy.”

The chaos at the airport, with thousands trying to flee, has been marked by violence with 12 people killed, according to western and Taliban officials, since last Sunday when the Islamist group seized Kabul and took control of the country. The deaths were the result of gunshots or being crushed to death by stampeding crowds. The actual number of fatalities may be higher, two bodies were seen near the British base in the last 24 hours.

There were also reports Taliban militants fired into the air on Thursday where the crowds were gathered at the airport’s walls with men, women and children fleeing.

My cousin was a policeman and [the Taliban] killed him, they shot him at home, in front of his young boy, they have no mercy

Amanullah, an Afghan citizen

The levels of aggression shown towards those heading to the airport have risen in the last few days with the arrival of jihadists from other parts of the country,  some of the checkpoints are not being manned by the Taliban but other Islamist groups like the Haqqani network.

Rafi Mohammed Abdullah, who is trying to get to the US, said: “We got through two Taliban checkpoints, they were not friendly but they let us through. But the third one was very harsh, they were Haqqani people, I could tell.

“They would not even look at our documents, when I pleaded with them to do so, one of them began hitting me. We managed to get through at the end by taking another route.

“At least we got through, I have relations, friends who are trying to get to the airport without success. People will keep trying to go even with the risks because they fear the foreign countries will stop the flights soon,” he said.

US soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at Kabul’s international airport

Aircraft from around 15 countries have been sent to Kabul to carry out the evacuation. But the low number of people managing to get through to be processed has meant that many are leaving with far fewer passengers than they can carry. Although the UK has managed to fill its flights more than other countries.

Afghanistan commemorated independence from Britain on Thursday against this background of fear and uncertainty. The Islamists declared in a statement: “Fortunately, today we are celebrating the anniversary of independence from Britain. We at the same time as a result of our jihadi resistance forced another arrogant power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan.”

Amanullah, waiting to be processed for his new life, observed: “We used to celebrate our country on Independence Day, but seeing those Taliban on that building reminded me again that we have lost our country and how much we need to get away.”

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