Western forces at Kabul airport worked frantically on Tuesday to get people out of Afghanistan before an Aug. 31 deadline, as U.S. President Joe Biden faced growing pressure to negotiate more time for the airlift of thousands trying to flee.
Widespread chaos punctuated by sporadic violence has gripped Kabul’s airport, with Western troops and Afghan security guards driving back crowds, following the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan capital on Aug. 15.
Countries that have evacuated some 58,700 people over the past 10 days were trying to meet the deadline agreed earlier with the Taliban for the withdrawal of foreign forces, a NATO diplomat told Reuters.
“Every foreign force member is working at a war-footing pace to meet the deadline,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) countries – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States – will meet virtually on Tuesday to discuss the crisis, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to push for a deadline extension.
Biden, who has said U.S. troops might stay beyond the deadline, has warned the evacuation was going to be “hard and painful” and much could still go wrong.
Democratic U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, told reporters after a briefing by intelligence officials that he did not believe the evacuation could be completed in the days remaining.
“It’s possible but I think it’s very unlikely given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated,” Schiff said.
A Taliban official said on Monday an extension would not be granted, though he said foreign forces had not sought one. Washington said negotiations were continuing.
CIA Director William Burns met Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on Monday, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Britain’s defence minister, Ben Wallace, told Sky News he was doubtful there would be a deadline extension.
But German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany was working with the United States and Britain to ensure the NATO partners can fly civilians out after the deadline.
“Even if the deadline is Aug. 31 or is extended by a few days, it will not be enough to evacuate those we want to evacuate and those that the United States wants to evacuate,” Maas said in an interview with Bild newspaper.
“That’s why we are working with the United States and Britain to ensure that once the military evacuation is completed it is still possible to fly civilians out of Kabul airport.”
Many Afghans fear reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law that the Taliban enforced when in power from 1996 to 2001, in particular the repression of women and freedom of speech.
The top U.N. human rights official, Michelle Bachelet, said she had received credible reports of serious violations committed by the Taliban, including summary execution of civilians and restrictions on women and protests against their rule.
“A fundamental red line will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls,” she told an emergency session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
An Afghan diplomat from the U.S.-backed government told the forum that millions of people feared for their lives amid reports of door-to-door searches while China’s U.N. envoy said the U.S. army and its partners should be held accountable for rights violations they committed in Afghanistan.
The G7 leaders could discuss taking a united stand on the question of whether to recognise a Taliban government, or alternatively renew sanctions to pressure the Islamist militant movement to comply with pledges to respect women’s rights and international relations.
“The G7 leaders will agree to coordinate on if, or when, to recognise the Taliban,” said one European diplomat. “And they will commit to continue to work closely together.”
Leaders of the Taliban, who have sought to show a more moderate face since capturing Kabul, have begun talks on forming a government that have included discussions with some old enemies from past governments, including a former president, Hamid Karzai.
The Pajhwok news agency reported that Taliban officials had been appointed to various posts including a governor of Kabul, acting interior and finance ministers and intelligence chief. A Taliban spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Recognition of a Taliban government by other countries would have important consequences, like allowing the Taliban access to foreign aid that previous Afghan governments have depended upon.
Biden has faced widespread criticism over the Aug. 31 withdrawal, which was initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, under a deal struck with the Taliban, and his opinion poll ratings have slipped.
While Western countries have been trying to get people out, humanitarian agencies are struggling to get aid in.
The World Health Organization only has enough supplies in Afghanistan to last for a week, an agency official said.