Kabul evacuations stall amid runway chaos as U.S. denounced for pullout

Thousands of civilians desperate to flee Afghanistan thronged Kabul airport’s single runway on Monday after the Taliban seized the capital, prompting the United States to suspend evacuations as it came under mounting criticism at home over its pullout.

The first of three German evacuation planes diverted to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, because it could not land in Kabul, which lies in a valley surrounded by mountains. read more A second plane was circling over the city.

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.

A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications that one U.S. soldier was wounded.

The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Kabul follows President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war that cost billions of dollars.

The speed at which Afghan cities fell, in just days rather than the months predicted by U.S. intelligence, and fear of a Taliban crackdown on freedom of speech and women’s rights have sparked criticism.

Biden, who said Afghan forces had to fight back against the Islamist Taliban, was due to speak on Afghanistan at 1945 GMT (3:45 p.m. EDT) after returning from the presidential retreat at Camp David.

He is facing 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.

“If President Biden truly has no regrets about his decision to withdraw, then he is disconnected from reality when it comes to Afghanistan,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter.

Republican Representative Jim Banks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Fox News: “We have never seen an American leader abdicate his responsibilities and leadership like Joe Biden has. He’s in hiding. The lights are on at the White House, but nobody’s home. Where is Joe Biden?”

Jim Messina, a White House deputy chief of staff under former President Barack Obama, defended Biden, saying there had been a bipartisan consensus that it was time to leave.

“We’ve been there 20 years. It’s America’s longest-running war, it is time to get out,” he said on Fox. “Why should American troops be fighting a civil war that Afghan troops this week refused to fight for themselves? It was time to get out.”

PRESIDENT FLEES

French President Emmanuel Macron urged the United Nations to act with a single voice.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said U.S. forces were working with Turkish and other international troops to clear Kabul airport to allow international evacuation flights to resume. He said several hundred people had been flown out so far.

Kirby, speaking at a news briefing in Washington, 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.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban, said in a message 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 that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.

‘SAME SITUATION’

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.

But 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.”