General Frank McKenzie warns Taliban will be hit with ‘overwhelming force’ if they interfere with rescue: US fly in ex ambassador and army commander to reinforce Kabul airport as evacuation is now a race against time
- General McKenzie only arrived in Kabul on Tuesday after talks with Taliban leaders in Qatar over the weekend
- The arrival of high ranking officials to reinforce security comes after the Taliban began shooting and beating Afghans attempting to flee at the airport gates
- McKenzie said any attempts to interfere with rescue operations ‘will be met with overwhelming force’
- The Taliban had previously agreed to allow ‘safe passage’ from Afghanistan for civilians who want to leave
- A total of more than 6,000 US troops are expected to be involved in securing the airport in coming days
- Women were filmed pleading with US troops to let them on evacuation flights, saying ‘Taliban are coming’
- Taliban gunmen have now surrounded the airport, with those on the ground saying they are deciding who stays and who leaves – with some legitimate visa holders in hiding for fear they will be targeted
The US State Department have dispatched a former ambassador and another Army commander to oversee evacuation logistics and reinforce security at Kabul airport amid increasing violence from the Taliban outside the airport gates.
Former ambassador John Bass and Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Donohue, a special operations officer and current commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, will join the head of US Central Command General Frank McKenzie, who arrived in Kabul on Tuesday.
The attempt to regain control comes after the Taliban set up checkpoints outside the civilian and military sections of the airport on Tuesday and used whips and sharp objects to beat back women and children desperate to flee, forcing crowds to run away in terror.
The Taliban then opened fire to drive the masses back from the site.
General McKenzie said any attempts by the Taliban to interfere with rescue operations ‘will be met with overwhelming force.’
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby disclosed on Tuesday that US officers were speaking with Taliban commanders ‘multiple times a day’ about avoiding conflict at the airport, but several Afghans have been killed or injured outside the airstrip by advancing Taliban forces.
US General Frank McKenzie (left) reviews and US Marine Brig. Gen. Farrell J. Sullivan (right) review an aerial photo at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Tuesday amid escalating violence from the Taliban towards civilians outside the airport gates
General Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, met directly with Taliban officials on Sunday for negotiations in Qatar before arriving to personally oversee operations in Kabul on Tuesday
General McKenzie will be joined by former ambassador John Bass and Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Donohue, a special operations officer and current commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, to oversee evacuation logistics at Kabul airport
Taliban fighters have now encircled the airport in Kabul, setting up checkpoints on both the civilian south side of the airport and the military north side, with gunshots fired in both locations to keep crowds back
The Taliban had previously agreeing to allow ‘safe passage’ from Afghanistan for civilians who want to leave, according to President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday.
Sullivan acknowledged reports that some civilians were encountering resistance – ‘being turned away or pushed back or even beaten’ – as they tried to reach the Kabul international airport.
But he said ‘very large numbers’ were reaching the airport and the problem of the others was being taken up with the Taliban, whose stunningly swift takeover of the country on Sunday plunged the US evacuation effort into chaos, confusion and violence.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid claimed on Tuesday ‘there is a huge difference between us and the Taliban of 20 years ago’ – when female Afghans were beaten in the street or publicly executed, denied work, healthcare and an education, and barred from leaving home without a male chaperone.
But reports from Kabul suggest Taliban militants are already going door-to-door, rounding up those who had worked with the Afghan armed forces or government, in addition to beating Afghan civilians outside Kabul airport.
Women were filmed reaching their hands through iron railings towards US troops while screaming ‘the Taliban are coming’ in footage being circulated on Afghan social media accounts.
It is thought the footage was filmed at the northern military side of Hamid Karzai airport, where around 25,000 people are gathered, with more footage revealing Taliban guards firing over the heads of men, women and children crouched in the road overnight.
Meanwhile those trying to get into the civilian south side of the airport – where another 25,000 are thought to have massed – faced patrols of Taliban gunmen on the roads leading up to the airport, before being funnelled between concrete barriers towards a large metal gate under the watchful eye of Taliban gunmen.
Witnesses at the airport gates said that very few people were being allowed through, with dozens trying to push through the gate each time it was opened, causing gunmen to fire into the air.
Women were filmed pleading with US troops that the ‘Taliban are coming’ in footage that appeared to have been taken at Kabul airport on Wednesday as thousands of desperate Afghans try to flee Islamist rule
US attempts to reinforce security come after escalating violence on Tuesday when Taliban fighters used whips and sticks to beat Afghan civilians attempting to reach the airport
A man cries as he watches fellow Afghans get wounded after Taliban fighters use gunfire, whips, sticks and sharp objects to maintain crowd control over thousands of Afghans who continue to wait outside Kabul airport for a way out
An Afghan woman is seen lying on the ground after the Taliban used whips and sharp objects to drive people from the airport
Pentagon officials said that after interruptions on Monday, the airlift was back on track and being accelerated despite weather problems, amid regular communication with Taliban leaders.
Additional US troops arrived and more were on the way, with a total of more than 6,000 expected to be involved in securing the airport in coming days – more than twice as many as in all of Afghanistan when Biden announced in April he would be ending the war and pulling out all troops.
According to an unnamed US official, the military has so far evacuated more than 3,200 people including around 2,000 Afghan civilians from Kabul, including 1,100 on Tuesday alone.
‘Today, US military flights evacuated approximately 1,100 US citizens, US permanent residents, and their families on 13 flights,’ the official said, adding: ‘Now that we have established the flow, we expect those numbers to escalate.’
General McKenzie said he had previously negotiated a safe passage agreement with Taliban leaders on Sunday in Doha, Qatar, before arriving in Kabul on Tuesday.
‘I cautioned them against interference in our evacuation, and made it clear to them that any attack would be met with overwhelming force in the defense of our forces,’ McKenzie said.
‘The protection of US civilians and our partners is my highest priority and we will take all necessary action to ensure a safe and efficient withdrawal.’
In a sign of how dire the situation has become, White House spokesman Jen Psaki was forced to admit Tuesday that there is no guarantee that all US citizens and visa holders will be able to leave the country before troops pull out on August 31.
‘Our focus right now is on the task at hand, and that is day by day getting as many American citizens, SIV applicants, as many of the vulnerable population who are eligible to be evacuated to the airport and out on planes,’ she said.
US troops, backed by British SAS and Royal Marines special forces, are guarding the 7.8-mile perimeter with snipers on rooftops, as well as machine gunners and armored cars on the runway. Meanwhile, truck-loads of Taliban fighters are outside the airport and manning the gates into the airport armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers.
Many Afghans are waiting to be evacuated from the airport in Kabul, but some civilians have been attacked by the Taliban as they attempted to reach the airport gates
Taliban fighters patrol the streets of Kabul on Tuesday and man checkpoints set up across the city
At the White House, Sullivan said US officials were engaged in an ‘hour by hour’ process of holding the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the country.
The goal is to ramp up to one evacuation flight per hour by Wednesday, with 5,000 to 9,000 evacuees leaving per day, Taylor and Kirby said.
In a presidential speech on Monday, President Joe Biden called the anguish of trapped Afghan civilians ‘gut-wrenching’ and conceded the Taliban had achieved a much faster takeover of the country than his administration had expected. The US rushed in troops to protect its own evacuating diplomats and others at the Kabul airport.
But the president expressed no second thoughts about his decision to stick by the US commitment, formulated during the Trump administration, to end America’s longest war no matter what.
‘I stand squarely behind my decision’ to finally withdraw US combat forces, Biden said.
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