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Efforts by the US and Nato to evacuate thousands of Afghans from Kabul airport are being thwarted by mayhem around Taliban checkpoints as a blame game erupted in Washington over who was responsible for the chaos.
The White House, US intelligence officials, diplomats and the Pentagon are pointing fingers at each other, both in public and via a series of damaging leaks, following inaccurate assessments about the prospects of a rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Evacuating vulnerable Afghans is the most pressing priority but the US and its Nato allies have struggled to get people into the airport. “The paradox is we have more planes than we have passengers,” said Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general. “We are working hard on how we can make more progress on getting Afghans at risk to the airport and into the airport.”
A person a briefed on the evacuation operations said Qatar has been co-ordinating between Nato, the UN, the UK, and in some cases the US, and the Taliban to transport Afghans who worked for western militaries and organisations through checkpoints manned by the Islamist movement’s forces.
But Qatari officials halted their operations on Friday because of safety concerns, the person said, adding that it took one convoy almost 12 hours to reach the airport the previous day amid gunfire.
“No one can get into the airport,” the person said, adding that it was almost impossible for Afghans to pass through the Taliban’s airport checkpoints without a diplomatic escort.
UK officials admitted that it was taking people 24 to 48 hours to get through Taliban control points within Kabul and reach the airport hotel which is being used as a processing centre for evacuees. There have been further delays in getting from the hotel to the airport’s main gate.
British special forces have been travelling outside the airport into the capital to collect UK nationals and Afghans who have been unable to get to the airport unaccompanied, according to two people briefed on the operation. The UK defence ministry does not comment on special forces’ activities.
The urgent need to evacuate Afghans was underscored after Deutsche Welle, the German state broadcaster, said the Taliban killed a relative of one of its journalists based in Germany. The militants have raided the homes of at least three more of its journalists, DW said.
The US and UK have been criticised for not doing more to protect their citizens and Afghans after the Taliban seized power this week in the wake of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.
About 800 Nato civilian staff are currently on the ground at Kabul airport working on evacuations, while the US, UK and Turkey were providing security. But there were mounting concerns among western governments that any evacuations would immediately cease if the US completes a full withdrawal on August 31, the original timeframe set.
President Joe Biden has said US troops may stay longer to evacuate Americans.
Stoltenberg said “several allies” had asked that the window for evacuations be extended beyond that date to “get more people out”.
Qatar, which hosts the US’s biggest military base in the Middle East and has mediated between the Taliban and the ousted Afghan government, is one of the few countries able to facilitate the movement of evacuees through Taliban checkpoints.
Using diplomatic vehicles and buses, and with the Qatari ambassador riding in convoys to ensure safe passage, the small Gulf state has transported Afghans who worked for governments, media organisations and non-governmental organisations to the section of the airport controlled by US forces.
Typically, details of the people who are to be evacuated are passed on to Qatari embassy staff. The Qataris then contact them, and if it is safe, instruct them to go to the hotel being used by the Gulf state’s ambassador from where they are transported to the airport. If an evacuee is deemed to be at high risk and would need to pass through Taliban checkpoints to reach the hotel, the Qataris meet them at another safe destination.
The US has sent more than 5,200 troops to Kabul to secure the airport. US defence officials say they have capacity to fly out 5,000-9,000 people a day from Kabul international airport, but have managed only 2,000 a day.
The UK has evacuated 2,400 people since Sunday, and has capacity to airlift up to 1,000 per day.