Intl desk, Aug 17: Thousands of people desperate to flee Afghanistan thronged Kabul’s airport on Monday after the Taliban seized the capital, prompting the United States to pause evacuations much of the day as President Joe Biden confronted mounting criticism over the U.S. withdrawal.
Crowds converged on the airport seeking to escape, including some who clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied on the single runway, and one person appeared to fall from the plane during takeoff, according to television footage.
U.S. troops fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight evacuating U.S diplomats and embassy staff, a U.S. official said.
At least five people were reported killed in the chaos, which forced a pause in evacuation flights. A witness said it was unclear if they had been shot or killed in a stampede. A U.S. official told Reuters two gunmen had been killed by U.S. forces there over the past 24 hours.
A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications that one member of the U.S. military was wounded.
A German evacuation plane diverted to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, because it could not land in Kabul. Another circled over the city, although authorities said late on Monday a military transport aircraft had landed to evacuate foreign nationals and Afghan staff.
U.S. authorities also confirmed that the airfield had been reopened and that evacuation flights had resumed.
The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Kabul followed Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war – the nation’s longest – that he described as costing more than $1 trillion.
The speed at which Afghan cities fell, in days rather than the months predicted by U.S. intelligence, and fear of a Taliban crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights, especially women’s rights, have sparked criticism.
In a televised address on Monday afternoon, Biden defended his decision, insisting he had had to decide between asking U.S. forces to fight endlessly in what he called Afghanistan’s civil war or follow through on an agreement to depart negotiated by Republican former President Donald Trump.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said. “After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there.”
He blamed the Taliban’s takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled the country and the Afghan army’s unwillingness to fight.
The Democrat has faced a barrage of criticism, from even his own diplomats, over his handling of the U.S. exit, pulling out troops and then sending back thousands to help with the evacuation.
“Afghanistan is lost … every terrorist around the world is cheering,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in his home state of Kentucky.
One of Biden’s fellow Democrats, Senator Mark Warner, the Intelligence Committee chairman, said he wanted answers about why Washington had not been better prepared for a worst-case scenario.
The U.N. Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of “chilling” curbs on human rights and violations against women and girls.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed. His whereabouts were unknown on Monday and the State Department declined to say whether it still viewed him as president.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had authorized the deployment of another battalion to Kabul that would bring the number of troops guarding the evacuation to about 6,000.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter that the group’s fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.
“Life, property and honour of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said.
It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others, melted away.
U.S. officers had long worried that corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied frontline soldiers.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled to Uzbekistan with 22 military planes and 24 helicopters during the weekend, including one aircraft that collided with an escorting Uzbek fighter jet, causing both to crash, Uzbekistan said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed Afghanistan by phone and agreed to continue talks with China, Pakistan and the United Nations.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi spoke to Blinken about Afghanistan and said Pakistan would remain closely engaged with the United States and other partners to support peace and stability in neighboring Afghanistan.
Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV the form of Afghanistan’s new government would be made clear soon. He said the Taliban did not want to live in isolation.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
“As far as I am concerned, Afghanistan will become a caliphate and a refuge for Islamic forces,” said Andreas Eggert, state chairman of the Federal Association of German Veterans, who served in Afghanistan.
“And, before long, we will see the same situation we saw 20 years ago.”