The beating blades of U.S. 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 entered the heart of Afghanistan’s capital.
Two weeks from the Biden administration's planned full military withdrawal, the United States was pouring thousands of fresh troops back into the country temporarily to safeguard what was gearing up to be a large-scale airlift. Shortly before dawn Monday Kabul time, State Department spokesman Ned Price announced the U.S. had completed the evacuation of its embassy in Afghanistan, lowering the American flag.
At the same time, the administration announced it was taking over air-traffic control at Kabul's international airport, to manage the airlifts. Sporadic gunfire there Sunday frightened Afghan families fearful of Taliban rule and desperate for flights out, one of the last avenues for escape in an evacuation made far more urgent by the Taliban's weeklong sweep across the country.
NATO allies that had pulled out their forces ahead of the Biden administration’s intended Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline were sending troops back in as well this weekend to protect evacuations of their own.
Some complained the U.S. was failing to move fast enough to bring to safety Afghans at risk of reprisal from the Taliban for past work with the Americans and other NATO forces.
“This is murder by incompetence,” said U.S. 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 U.S.-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.
That arrival of the first waves of Taliban insurgents into Kabul prompted the U.S. to begin evacuating the embassy building in full, leaving only acting ambassador Ross Wilson and a core of other diplomats operating at the airport. 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.
“This is being done in a very deliberate way, it’s being done in an orderly way,” Blinken insisted on ABC’s “This Week.”
A joint statement from the U.S. State and Defense departments pledged late Sunday to fly thousands of Americans, local embassy staff and other "particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals” out of the country.
It gave no details, but high-profile Afghan women, journalists, and Afghans who've worked with Western governments and nonprofits are among those who most fear Taliban targeting for perceived Western ways or ties.
The statement promised to speed up visa processing for Afghans who used to work with American troops and officials in particular.
To many, the evacuations, and last-ditch rescue attempts by Americans and other foreigners trying to save Afghan allies, appeared far from orderly.
An Italian journalist, Francesca Mannocchi, posted a video of an Italian helicopter carrying her to the airport, an armed soldier standing guard at a window. Mannochi described watching columns of smoke rising from Kabul as she flew. Some were from fires that workers at the U.S. Embassy and others were using to keep sensitive material from falling in Taliban hands.
She said Afghans stoned an Italian convoy. She captioned her brief video: “Kabul airport. Evacuation. Game Over."
Hundreds or more Afghans crowded in a part of the airport away from many of the evacuating Westerners. Some of them, including a man with a broken leg sitting on the ground, lined up for what was expected to be a last flight out by the country's Ariana Airlines.
U.S. officials reported gunfire near the airport Sunday evening and for a time urged civilians to stop coming. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the airport was open for commercial flights — the only escape left for many ordinary Afghans — but would experience stoppages.
U.S. C-17 transport planes were due to bring thousands of fresh American troops to the airport, then fly out again with evacuating U.S. Embassy staffers. The Pentagon was now sending an additional 1,000 troops, bringing the total number to about 6,000, a U.S. defense official said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a deployment decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.
The Pentagon intends to have enough aircraft to fly out as many as 5,000 civilians a day, both Americans and the Afghan translators and others who worked with the U.S. during the war.
It was by no means clear how long Kabul’s deteriorating security would allow any evacuations to continue.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose government had been one of many expressing surprise at the speed of the U.S. withdrawal, told reporters in Berlin on Sunday that it was “difficult to endure” watching how quickly the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and how little government troops were able to do to stop them.
At a North Carolina-based adoption agency, Mary Beth Lee King sought a way to extricate two Afghan boys, ages 11 and 2, due for adoption by families in America.
“Even if the U.S. won’t admit them to the U.S., get them somewhere, so that ... we know that they are alive and safe,” King said of the two Afghan children.
In Virginia, Lerman, the Air Force veteran, stayed up overnight Saturday to Sunday to finish an application for a special U.S. visa program meant to rescue Afghans who had worked with Americans.
When Lerman hit “send,” he got a message saying the State Department email box for the rescue program was full, he said, sharing screenshots.
The Afghan security contractor he was working to get out was sitting frightened inside his home with the blinds drawn and Taliban fighters outside, he said.
The State Department said late Sunday afternoon it believed it had fixed the problem.
“Never in my life have I been ashamed to be an American before," Lerman said. "And I am, deeply.”
Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City and Barry from Rome. Samya Kullab in Baghdad, Krista Larson in Dakar, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Robert Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.