After the US advised Americans in Afghanistan to avoid traveling to Kabul airport on Saturday, a Pentagon spokesman said the US had “a whole panoply of security concerns” around efforts to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies after the country fell to the Taliban last week.
Thousands are still trying to flee, a week after Islamist militants took control. In Washington, Joe Biden abandoned plans to spend the weekend in Delaware and stayed at the White House to monitor the situation.
At a Pentagon briefing, press spokesman John Kirby said he would not “detail a threat assessments with the intelligence” but said the area around Kabul airport was “very fluid and very dynamic”.
“What I would tell you is that we continue to have regular communication with Taliban leaders, they’re in Kabul, particularly those that are manning or in charge of the checkpoints around the airport, that communication and deconfliction occurs.”
Kirby also said there was “a lot less visibility farther out into the city, and that’s possibly where there might be threats of kidnapping or … what really we’re trying to avoid here. There’s a lot, there’s a whole panoply of security concerns that we have.”
The US embassy advisory against traveling to the airport came after Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar arrived in Kabul for talks with other leaders.
“Because of potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport, we are advising US citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a US government representative to do so,” the US Embassy advisory said.
The White House said on Friday it did not know exactly how many Americans were currently in Afghanistan, though officials have indicated that it is in the thousands.
Maj Gen Hank Taylor, with the US military’s joint staff, told reporters on Saturday there had been periods when gates to the airport were closed. He also said 2,500 US citizens had been evacuated to date.
Taylor said six US C-17 planes and 32 charter flights with 3,800 passengers had left Afghanistan in the last 24 hours, a smaller number than in previous days. Three flights had landed at Dulles airport near Washington, Taylor said, with 22,000 people relocated to Fort Bliss in Texas for processing.
At least 12 people have been killed in and around the single-runway airfield amid chaotic scenes since the fall of Kabul, Nato and Taliban officials said.
On Saturday, Switzerland postponed a charter flight out of Kabul. A government statement said: “The security situation around Kabul airport has worsened significantly in the last hours. A large number of people in front of the airport and sometimes violent confrontations are hindering access to the airport.”
Taylor told reporters there had been “no reported change to the current enemy situation” outside the airport.
Kirby said the US “knew of a small number of cases where some Americans and Afghans we want to evacuate have been harassed and in some cases beaten”, as indicated by the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, on Friday, a comment seized upon by congressional Republicans in attacks on Biden’s handling of the withdrawal.
The US had not ruled out the possibility of troops going outside the airport to collect people, Kirby said, adding that Austin had made clear to the Taliban that such confrontations were not acceptable.
Kirby said Austin would not resign.
The Taliban, who follow an ultra-hardline version of Sunni Islam, have presented a more moderate face since returning to power, saying they want peace and will respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law. When in power from 1996 to 2001, guided by Islamic law, they stopped women from working or going out without wearing an all-enveloping burqa and stopped children from going to school.
Individual Afghans and international aid and advocacy groups have reported harsh retaliation against protests and round-ups of those who formerly held government positions, criticised the Taliban or worked with Americans. Former officials have told harrowing tales of hiding from the Taliban in recent days as gunmen went from door to door. One family of 16 described running to the bathroom, lights off and children’s mouths covered, in fear for their lives.
“We have heard of some cases of atrocities and crimes against civilians,” a Taliban official told Reuters, on condition of anonymity. “If [members of the Taliban] are doing these law and order problems, they will be investigated. We can understand the panic, stress and anxiety. People think we will not be accountable, but that will not be the case.”
The official said the group planned to ready a new model for governing in the next few weeks, with teams to tackle security and financial issues.
“Experts from the former government will be brought in for crisis management,” the official said, adding that the new government structure would not be a democracy by western definitions, but “it will protect everyone’s rights”.
Baradar, the chief of the Taliban’s political office, was part of the group’s negotiating team in the Qatar capital, Doha. Reported to have been one of the most trusted commanders of the former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, Baradar was captured in 2010 in Karachi and released in 2018.
On Friday, Biden confronted criticism about planning for the withdrawal of US troops.
“I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies,” Biden told reporters. “As a matter of fact, the exact opposite … we’re acting with dispatch, we’re acting, committing to what we said we would do.”