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Story Publication logo August 16, 2021

Inside the Desperate, Dangerous Scramble To Evacuate Kabul as Taliban Seize Control


photo of Kabul

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

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Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban and the frenzy for Afghans and diplomats trying to flee the country reached a fever pitch Monday. Additional U.S. troops are on their way to help with evacuations as the Taliban retake power 20 years after the American invasion. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Kabul, and congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins reports on the U.S. response.

Read the full transcript

Judy Woodruff: Afghanistan's government has fallen to Islamist militants who make up the Taliban, and the frenzy for Afghan citizens and diplomats trying to escape the country today reached a fever pitch. Seven Afghans died in a frantic scramble at the Kabul Airport, two of whom apparently fell after hanging on to the wheels of a U.S. cargo plane as it took off. Additional U.S. troops are on their way to help with evacuations; 6,000 will soon be there, as the Taliban retake power 20 years after the American invasion that deposed them. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Jane Ferguson is in Kabul.

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Jane Ferguson: Few images capture the U.S.' frantic American withdrawal from Afghanistan quite like this: desperate and terrified Afghans trying to stop a U.S. military plane from leaving.On Sunday, crowds stormed the tarmac of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, anxious to board one of the last commercial flights out of the country. Scenes like this quickly spread on social media across Afghanistan and the world, a symbol of the U.S.' disastrous withdrawal from the country after 20 years of war. CCTV cameras filmed the massive crowds blocking the runway. As people rushed to the airport, trying to escape a sweeping Taliban takeover, anger was palpable across the city and a sense of complete abandonment by the U.S.

Jane Ferguson: The crowds made it difficult throughout Sunday and Monday for evacuation flights of U.S. and other foreign embassy employees to take off, delaying frantic efforts to get diplomatic staff out of the country as the Taliban moved into the capital. After top aides fanned out in defense of the president and the withdrawal and as pressure from within his own party and Capitol Hill mounted, President Biden weighed in from the White House this afternoon. He again forcefully defended the withdrawal, but did not fully address his administration's role in the chaos on the ground.

Joe Biden: I stand squarely behind my decision. We were clear-eyed about the risk. We planned for every contingency. But I always promised the American people that I would be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.

Jane Ferguson: Mr. Biden said the blame for that truth lay with the Afghan government and security forces.

Joe Biden: Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.

Jane Ferguson: The president said that the U.S. has warned the Taliban not to interfere with the evacuation.

Joe Biden: We have made it clear to the Taliban, if they attack our personnel, we will defend our people with devastating force if necessary.

Jane Ferguson: Back in Kabul, the U.S. Marines continue to try to secure the airport long enough for flights to make it out. From a nearby compound on Monday, heavy gunfire could be heard throughout the day as security forces tried to disperse the crowds, even flying Apache helicopters low to push them back from the runway. Helicopters evacuated U.S. and other international personnel in a constant roar across the city's skies, while Taliban fighters poured in, and Afghan security forces started to move out. For those fleeing to the airport by road, both were present on Sunday in the city's streets for a moment in an informal and surreal amnesty. The "NewsHour" arrived into Kabul on Sunday morning just a few hours before the Taliban entered the city. And Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, saying in a statement: "The Taliban have won by the judgment of the sword and guns, and now they are responsible for protecting their countrymen's honor, wealth and self-esteem. They didn't win the legitimacy of their hearts. "Once busy secure compounds emptied out as foreigners fled too, caught unprepared by the speed of the Taliban's takeover of the country. On Sunday night, the city braced for a change in power, something rarely peaceful in Afghanistan. As the sun sets in Kabul tonight, technically, there is no one in charge of this city. It's an extremely tense situation with a high level of risk for looting and lawlessness. On Monday morning, reports of robberies and violence poured in, but so too did images of Taliban checkpoints claiming to be present to simply maintain law and order. The deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, whose release from Pakistani custody was organized in 2018 by the Trump administration to jump-start talks, spoke from Qatar.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (through translator): Day by day, we will get involved in the service of our nation in providing them with security and hope for their future.

Jane Ferguson: But these people are not taking any chances. Many of them are terrified the Taliban will single them out as having worked with the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. In recent months, President Biden and his aides have pushed back against comparisons with Vietnam, when the U.S. drawdown precipitated the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and a rapid evacuation of the U.S. Embassy.

Joe Biden: There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.

Jane Ferguson: Given the scenes playing out in Afghanistan right now, he may be correct. This could be much worse.

Judy Woodruff: And Jane joins me now from Kabul. So, Jane, I know it is the middle of the night there, but have you heard any reaction yet to President Biden's speech today?

Jane Ferguson: It is late here, Judy, so most people are hunkered down at home. The Taliban implement a curfew in the city at this time. But I don't think people are that surprised by Biden's remarks, because they have heard him push back against any criticism of the way this drawdown has happened. But I do think there will be a little bit of shock about the criticism that has been leveled at Afghan security forces, those that have been considered America's allies throughout this, and those who have taken huge casualty rates in recent years fighting the Taliban. Now, of course, he also alluded to the commando units, the special forces units, that they had been fighting particularly hard. But they also probably won't be too surprised at his criticism of the politicians. And you hear the criticism much more harshly here on the ground, the political leadership and Afghanistan that essentially moved out. And people feel very much so abandoned by their own political leadership, as well as America. But I think one of the frustrations on the ground here that people voice to us a lot is that the argument has been shaped around this idea of whether America stays or goes, instead of really discussing how America goes. Most people here wanted this war to draw down and wanted — they saw America withdrawing as an indicator that violence could be reduced and as a positive thing. But what people feel frustrated by is that there isn't a conversation as to what the strategy was for that drawdown, rather than simply just wheels up.

Judy Woodruff: And, Jane, we saw a good deal of this in your report just now, but give us more of a sense of what it's been like there in these days that you have been in Kabul, in the country.

Jane Ferguson: Events have moved so quickly since my cameraman Eric O'Connor and I have arrived here. We — as we moved around the city when we first arrived, we saw Afghan security forces basically disappear from the street. And for a particular moment of time, that was quite frightening for the — for the residents of the city. No one was in charge. There were rumors that the Taliban were in the city. But most of those fighters were on the outskirts of the city until their commanders told them to move in. But where we are right now is right by the airport. And what we have been hearing today is heavy gunfire. Just behind me, not far behind me is the airport. And that gunfire, as you saw from our report, is something that has become necessary simply to get planes in and out. We have seen more Apache helicopters circling over the area. We know that, just beyond here, Taliban checkpoints surround the airport. So it's extraordinarily tense here. You have, of course, thousands of American troops. Afghan security forces, those that — the only ones that we have seen remaining are present towards the entrance of the airport, and thousands of desperate civilians who keep arriving at the airport, even though flights are barely coming and going.

Judy Woodruff: And, Jane, we know from your many trips to Afghanistan you have a lot of contacts there in Kabul and around the country. What are you hearing from them?

Jane Ferguson: Almost everyone, Judy, who gets in touch is trying to figure out whether they should leave, how they should leave, and, if they were to stay, would they be trapped here? There's a sense of no one really understanding what Afghanistan after America might look like and (AUDIO GAP) in charge. People are terrified of potential retribution. They have been living through assassination campaigns. As you say, we have been reporting on this for quite some time. So they don't take — many of the people that we speak to don't take the Taliban at its word. So they're extremely nervous about what their future is going to look like. They're also — they're also wondering — and this is especially relevant to women — what the new rules are. What are the new parameters for life in Afghanistan? Women have not been given any explanations beyond they will have their full rights under Sharia Islamic law. But that's an extremely vague phrase. That doesn't really give them any details at all. So, people are hunkered down and trying to figure out when it's safe to come out and what life is going to be like from here on it.

Judy Woodruff: And in connection with that, are you getting any sense from the Taliban of what their intentions are in coming days?

Jane Ferguson: We can see very clearly that the Taliban are anxious to reassure people that they are indeed the group that is law and order. That's their brand, that they can control the space, that they can minimize the rioting, that they can provide a sense of stability for citizens. They have been tweeting this, releasing statements. They're keen to put on a certain show in the city center of checkpoints that encourage law and order. We know that they have gone to major hotels and some major installations to do things like check for which guns have been given government permits and to — and they have also made some announcements about government ministers. But there have also been reports of abuses of the confiscation of cars, checkpoints that stop people from moving, and also a lot of harassment at the airport of people trying to come and go. So, at the minute, it's very unclear as to how this will all shape up realistically as an actual government. But, right now, they're trying to reassure people that they can control and maintain order in the city.

Judy Woodruff: Interesting. Jane Ferguson reporting for us on the ground. And, of course, Jane, we will be coming back to you frequently. Please stay safe, you and your team. Thank you.

Jane Ferguson: Thank you, Judy.

Judy Woodruff: And we turn now to our own Lisa Desjardins, who's covering President Biden's response. And so, Lisa, I know you were looking, you were listening as the president made those remarks today. It was a determined speech. What stood out to you?

Lisa Desjardins: A number of things. First of all, this was not a political speech. This was different than candidate Biden. He was very clear in saying: This is my defense of what I have done. I will admit one thing. This happened more quickly than I thought. And there was no messaging here. This was Joe Biden, someone who is himself a student of history. Now, there was not in this speech, however, a really clear addressing of the major questions that you heard just now from Jane. Why was there not a better plan for how the U.S. was going to pull back? And what is the U.S. culpability here? You can say that Afghan forces collapsed, but the U.S. was supporting those forces. And when the U.S. pulled out, was there really a plan for how they could get their own aircraft in the air? Those things, he did not answer.

Judy Woodruff: And, Lisa, you cover Capitol Hill 24/7. A number of lawmakers are pushing back hard at the president. What are you hearing?

Lisa Desjardins: Right. And I have to say, this is an interesting moment, because some Democrats are defending the president and saying it was a good speech. He laid out a pro-America stance, a pro-American forces stance. But even some Democrats, like Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, say there are a lot of questions here, and that we had intelligence that something like this would happen. From the Republicans, blistering, sharp pushback, some even saying the president showing he is unfit with this. Some, like Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, saying not only was this foreseeable, it was foreseen. But Congress really can't do much here except sit back and wait. They're on recess now. Expect briefings and a lot of questions down the road. But, in the meantime, much like Jane said, they're all trying to get the people they know out of Afghanistan as well.

Judy Woodruff: The most urgent thing right now…

Lisa Desjardins: That's right.

Judy Woodruff: … as we watch what unfolds. Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

Lisa Desjardins: You're welcome.


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