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Story Publication logo August 18, 2021

Chaos, Cries for Help Outside Kabul Airport As Taliban Crack Down on Protesters


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Several young Afghans are fighting for their own survival and that of their country as the Americans...

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Protests against the Taliban turned deadly as the insurgents-turned-rulers of Afghanistan shot into crowds in two cities. In Kabul, the airlift of American, allied and Afghan civilians continues as more American troops land at the airport and desperate crowds remain outside. Jane Ferguson reports from Kabul — with the support of the Pulitzer Center — about the fear and hopelessness in Afghanistan.

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Read the Full Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Protests against the Taliban provoked violence today as the insurgents-turned-rulers of Afghanistan fired shots into crowds in at least two cities. In Kabul, the airlift of U.S., allied, and Afghan civilians, and others continue, as more American troops land at the airport. Desperate crowds remain outside. And, as Jane Ferguson reports from Kabul, again with the support of the Pulitzer Center, there is fear and hopelessness.

Jane Ferguson: Each day brings growing desperation at Kabul International Airport's perimeter walls. At this entrance gate, British soldiers try to maintain order amongst frantic civilians, anxious to make evacuation flights out, as Taliban soldiers, victors in this war, watch. British troops are here to process people who have been approved for flights out. But all civilians who show up must first pass through Taliban checkpoints to get here.

Woman: They attack one day my sister with gun. And, again, that the American soldier stopped her and carried us in here. Now we don't, what should we do?

Jane Ferguson: This young woman fled the western city of Herat when Taliban fighters took over and tried to force her to marry one of them. And you are a doctor?

Woman: Yes, I'm a doctor. We have — because just now even the Taliban came to Herat city, I cannot even drive. I sold my car.

Jane Ferguson: Like so many who come here, she has no visa and no flight out. Do you think you're going to be able to get on an airplane?

Woman:I don't know. I don't know. We don't know.

Jane Ferguson: Where do you want to go?

Woman: We don't know. Just I want to go there, be safe, because we are alone.

Jane Ferguson: You don't feel safe?

Woman: No.

Jane Ferguson: People beg to be allowed in, aware that each day is one closer to the end of this eventual evacuation. The fear of being left behind is palpable. For all the crowds that show up here, you have got the lucky ones over here who have visas and paperwork. And the soldiers are able to help them. They are able to show them into the airport. But you also have the unlucky ones, so many of them, just like these families here with newborn babies arguing with the soldiers. The soldiers are trying to get them to move over so they can separate those who get to leave the country from those that don't, and all the while, those gunshots that you hear in the background just beyond these vehicles, that's Taliban checkpoints. And they are firing off their rounds. The emergency evacuation of Americans and their allies from Afghanistan, in the midst of a sweeping Taliban takeover of the country, continues. There are now 5,000 American troops at the Kabul Airport to ensure embassy staff and Afghans who worked for the U.S. and allies make it out safely. Amidst the chaos, tens of thousands more who once worked with and for Americans now fear being left behind and at the mercy of a vengeful Taliban. In Washington, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley briefed President Biden at the White House. They spoke at the Pentagon later in the day.

Lloyd Austin: It's obvious we're not close to where we want to be in terms of getting the numbers through.

Jane Ferguson: Austin was asked if he could send forces into Kabul city to help the passage of people to the airport.

Lloyd Austin: Well, we're going to do everything we can to continue to try to deconflict and create passageways for them to get to the airfield. I don't have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul. And where do you take that? I mean, how far can you extend into Kabul, and how long does it take to flow those forces in to be able to do that?

Jane Ferguson: Milley defended the intelligence estimates on the stability of the Afghan government and security forces, which forecast one scenario of a total collapse in months or even weeks.

Gen. Mark Milley: I did not, nor did anyone else, see a collapse of an army that size in 11 days. There will be many postmortems on this topic. But right now is not that time.

Jane Ferguson: Elsewhere in Afghanistan, some initial acts of resistance to Taliban rule were met with swift violence. Former President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country on Sunday hours before the Taliban swept into the capital, appeared for the first time in a video sent from the United Arab Emirates. Ghani denied reports that he had over $150 million in cash in bags when he left. He also addressed the many failures that led to the Taliban takeover:

Ashraf Ghani (through translator): We failed in politics, but which politics? It was the failure of the Taliban leadership. That was the failure of the government leadership and also the political failure of the international allies.

Jane Ferguson: The Taliban says it won't seek revenge against those who worked for Ghani's government, including members of the Afghan national security forces. Most here don't believe them. This family of four boys and their mother lost their father, they told the "NewsHour," just a month before, a high-ranking helicopter pilot killed fighting in the war. They have visas for another country, but with the commercial side of the airport shut, no way out. "The Taliban knows me," the eldest son tells us. "They know us all." For professional, educated women here, like the doctor, life is now divided between before and after the Taliban came to town.

Woman: In the past, when the Taliban was not here, we have an almost good life. We — I worked. I could work. I could drive. But now even I cannot go out of home without any man. Even within these two, three weeks, we are so bad life. We had a good life. It was — that was good for us.

Jane Ferguson: And what do you think (is) going to happen to you? What do you think will happen in the future?

Woman: I don't know. If I go out of here, I'm sure that they find us. I am a surgeon. I had good work in Herat city. I was so famous in Herat city, but because of just my life, I should leave all of this.

Jane Ferguson: And, I mean, what are you going to do? Right now, what are you going to do?

Woman: I don't know.

Jane Ferguson: A British commander went to talk to the Taliban fighters, trying to ease the tension. But his troops were still forced to turn back those not on the list for evacuation, including the family of the pilot killed in action. Nothing could ease the painful indignity of being pushed back behind the razor wire, back towards the Taliban. And in an exclusive interview today with ABC News's George Stephanopoulos, the president again defended his decision to withdraw, and he said that U.S. troops will stay as long as it takes to get thousands of American civilians out.

George Stephanopoulos: So, Americans should understand the troops might have to be there beyond August 31?

Joe Biden: No, Americans should understand that we're going to try to get it done before August 31.

George Stephanopoulos: But if we don't, the troops will stay?

Joe Biden: If we don't, we will determine at the time who's left.

George Stephanopoulos: And?

Joe Biden: And if there are American forces — if there's American citizens left, we're going to stay until we get them all out.

Judy Woodruff: And with that, Jane Ferguson joins me again. And she is in Kabul. Jane, just some remarkable reporting that you have done for us all this day. You listened to President Biden's interview today. What struck you from what he had to say?

Jane Ferguson: Well, the point that he was just making that we just heard from him there was very striking, that, if they were to stay later, they would do so to get out American citizens. Again, there still isn't quite so much clarity as people here need on what the interpreters and those who would be getting SIV visas and different kinds of visas, those who assisted American forces on the ground, how they're going to get out. Journalists and diplomats are contacted every day constantly right now by people who haven't been given a visa that are stuck in process. The other thing he said that was interesting when pushed on whether or not he took responsibility or he thought that this had been a crisis or a disaster that could have been averted, he very much so doubled down in his blaming of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, saying that because he abandoned his position, effectively, left the country, it was him that precipitated this crisis that couldn't have been — couldn't have been foreshadowed.

Judy Woodruff: And as you were reporting, Jane, former President or President Ghani revealed his whereabouts today after just leaving the country abruptly over the weekend.

Jane Ferguson: That's right. He had been missing for several days. He had not addressed his people. He just left the country. And it was an absolute mystery, and really an enormous scandal here. The government collapsed and the security forces collapsed within hours of him leaving and disappearing. And so, today, we heard that he had shown up in the United Arab Emirates, that that country had given him a humanitarian visa and humanitarian reprieve to leave. He released that statement trying to push back against the enormous criticism that he has faced because of his abandonment of the country, saying that he blamed the Taliban, he blamed certain political processes, that he intended to return to Afghanistan, and pushing back against these accusations that he left with vast sums of money. And so I don't think anybody sees this as a realistic attempt to save face. But he — people had been absolutely astounded that they had not even heard from their president up until this point. So it's not entirely unexpected that he at least released a statement and showed the nearly 40 million citizens of Afghanistan where he was.

Judy Woodruff: And, finally, Jane, back to all those people trying to get out, factoring in what President Biden is saying, what is the sense there of how long these evacuations are going to go on?

Jane Ferguson: We know, Judy, that they're getting more efficient. We can hear the planes. Where I am right now is very close to the airport. We can hear the planes take off and land. And we have seen very patchy cooperation between the Taliban and the American and other security forces that are here, where the Taliban had been basically making life difficult around the airport, they had been agitating people, frightening civilians, beating people, firing guns over their heads. We have seen at times, a little bit of a reduction of that. But — and, also, it's believed that the runway is much clearer now. So they're able to get people in and out more efficiently. But there are still thousands of people here. There are still many people trying to get out. I have spoken with militaries here who estimate anything from two, three, four, five days left for this. But as you heard from President Biden, it may take longer. That puts a lot of pressure on everyone involved because we're — at the end of the day, we're talking about the American military in close proximity and surrounded by the Taliban. So, nobody wants this to have to go on any longer than it needs to.

Judy Woodruff: And the president saying August the 31st, but we will see. Jane Ferguson reporting again from Kabul. Jane, please stay safe. Thank you.

Jane Ferguson:Thank you, Judy.


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