WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden said on Friday he could not guarantee the final outcome of the emergency evacuation from Kabul’s airport, calling it one of the most “difficult” airlift operations ever.
“This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” Biden said in a televised address from the White House. “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be.” The president said US forces had airlifted 13,000 people out of Afghanistan since August 14, and 18,000 since July, with thousands more evacuated on private charter flights “facilitated by the US government”.
Biden, in a speech and answering questions from reporters, dismissed criticism that the administration misjudged the speed with which the Taliban would take over Afghanistan and that he was slow to start evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies of the 20-year long US presence there.
The president is counting on cooperation from the Taliban, who ousted the Kabul government a week ago as US forces withdrew, plunging Biden into his biggest foreign policy crisis.
Biden said US officials were in constant contact with the Taliban. He warned the group that “any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with a swift and forceful response”.
Fears were being expressed, meanwhile, that the Taliban could renege on promises to pardon opponents and their families, as Nato called on the group to let Afghans leave the country.
The militants seized control of Kabul on Sunday after a rapid offensive that shocked the United States and its foreign allies, who were just two weeks away from completing their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have tried to flee the country, with the rushed exit leading to sporadic firing at the Kabul airport, people falling to their deaths from planes and roads paralysed with traffic.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said the main challenge “is ensuring that people can reach and enter Kabul airport”. He spoke at an emergency video-link conference of the alliance’s foreign ministers.
A German civilian was shot on his way to the airport, a spokeswoman for the German government said on Friday.
The Taliban have repeatedly vowed a complete amnesty but an intelligence document for the UN said militants were going door-to-door hunting down former government officials and those who worked with US and Nato forces.
According to a confidential document by the UN’s threat assessment consultants, militants were also screening people on the way to Kabul airport. “They are targeting the families of those who refuse to give themselves up, and prosecuting and punishing their families ‘according to Sharia law’,” Christian Nellemann, the group’s executive director, said.
The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle also reported that the Taliban had shot dead the relative of one of its journalists while searching for the editor. “The killing of a close relative of one of our editors by the Taliban yesterday is inconceivably tragic, and testifies to the acute danger in which all our employees and their families in Afghanistan find themselves,” DW director general Peter Limbourg said.
The Taliban have said their fighters are not allowed to enter private homes, but have conceded some of their fighters were breaking into properties. “Some people are still doing this, possibly in ignorance,” Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, a senior Taliban official, said in a Twitter post.
There have been isolated signs of opposition to the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan. Local media reported on Friday that resistance fighters in northern Baghlan province had taken back three districts from Taliban control.
“Today Taliban... went to villages and were questioning people. That (caused) people to rise up,” former interior minister Masoud Andarabi, who has fled the country, said.
A resistance movement was also forming in the Panjshir Valley, led by deposed vice-president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, the son of Afghanistan’s most famed anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Ahmad Massoud said he was “ready to follow in his father’s footsteps”.
Former top government official Abdullah on Friday posted photos on Facebook of him and former president Hamid Karzai meeting with elders and resistance commanders in the province — just days after the pair met Taliban leaders.
Small, isolated protests have also been held in cities in Afghanistan this week, with Afghans waving the country’s black, red and green flags.
Taliban fighters fired guns to disperse dozens of Afghans in Jalalabad who waved the flag on Wednesday.