White House: Taliban agree to allow civilian ‘safe passage’

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White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Taliban have agreed to allow “safe passage” from Afghanistan for civilians hoping to join a U.S.-directed airlift from the capital, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser said Tuesday, although a timetable for completing the evacuation of Americans, Afghan allies and possibly other civilians has yet to be worked out with the country’s new rulers.

Jake 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. He said “very large numbers” were reaching the airport and the problem of others was being taken up with the Taliban, whose stunningly swift takeover of the country on Sunday plunged the U.S. evacuation effort into chaos, confusion and violence.

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 U.S. 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.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby disclosed that U.S. commanders are speaking with Taliban commanders “multiple times a day” about avoiding conflict at the airport. This suggested that the new rulers of Afghanistan, who swept to power after 20 years of war against the U.S.-supported Kabul government, plan not to disrupt the evacuation. Kirby would not discuss details of the Taliban arrangement, and Sullivan said the question of how much time the Taliban will give the evacuation is still being negotiated.

Biden has said he wants the evacuation completed by Aug. 31. Sullivan declined to say whether that deadline would hold.

Sullivan said U.S. officials are 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. Asked whether the Biden administration recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, Sullivan said it was too soon to say and that the Taliban’s record of adhering to international human rights standards “has not been good.”

Overnight at the airport, nine Air Force C-17 transport planes arrived with equipment and about 1,000 troops, and seven C-17s took off with 700-800 civilian evacuees, including 165 Americans, Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor told a Pentagon news conference. The total included Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas and third-country nationals, he said.

The goal is to ramp up to one evacuation flight per hour by Wednesday, with potentially a total of 5,000 to 9,000 evacuees leaving per day, Taylor and Kirby said. Taylor said that more than 4,000 U.S. troops are now at the airport. That number is expected to top 6,000 in coming days, with airport security to be headed by an 82nd Airborne commander.

On Monday the airlift had been temporarily suspended when Afghans desperate to escape the country breeched security and rushed onto the tarmac. Seven people died in several incidents.

Kirby, said U.S. commanders at the airport are in direct communication with Taliban commanders outside the airport to avoid security incidents. He indicated this communication was in line with an arrangement made on Sunday by the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, when he met with Taliban leaders in Qatar and won agreement to “deconflict” forces and allow a safe U.S. evacuation.

Kirby said there have been no hostile actions by the Taliban, and that several hundred members of the now-defeated Afghan army are at the airport assisting in the evacuation.

Kirby said during television interviews that plans were being made to house up to 22,000 evacuated Afghans and their families at three U.S. Army installations in the continental United States. Those locations are Camp McCoy, Wisconsin; Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort Lee, Virginia.

On Monday, a defiant Biden rejected blame for chaotic scenes of Afghans clinging to U.S. military planes in Kabul in a desperate bid to flee their home country after the Taliban’s easy victory over an Afghan military that America and NATO allies had spent two decades trying to build.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. commitment, formulated during the Trump administration, to end America’s longest war, no matter what.

“I stand squarely behind my decision” to finally withdraw U.S. combat forces, Biden said, while acknowledging the Afghan collapse played out far more quickly than the most pessimistic public forecasts of his administration. “This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” he said.

Despite declaring “the buck stops with me,” Biden placed almost all blame on Afghans for the shockingly rapid Taliban conquest.

His grim comments were his first in person to the world since the biggest foreign policy crisis of his still-young presidency. Emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal, Taliban fighters swept across the country last week and captured the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, sending U.S.-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country.

Biden said he had warned Ghani — who was appointed Afghanistan’s president in a U.S.-negotiated agreement — to be prepared to fight a civil war with the Taliban after U.S. forces left. “They failed to do any of that,” he said.

At home, it all sparked sharp criticism, even from members of Biden’s own political party, who implored the White House to do more to rescue fleeing Afghans, especially those who had aided the two-decade American military effort.

“We didn’t need to be seeing the scenes that we’re seeing at Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing aboard C-17s,” said Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and Iraq and Afghanistan military veteran.

He said that is why he and others called for the evacuations to start months ago. “It could have been done deliberately and methodically,” Crow said. “And we think that that was a missed opportunity.”

Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Matthew Lee, Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.

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