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Nearly a week after the collapse of Afghanistan’s government, thousands of Afghans remain in a dangerous limbo, clamoring for escape despite tear gas and Taliban checkpoints outside the fortresslike airport in Kabul.
Although U.S. troops are accelerating the evacuation, hope is fading that the U.S.-led effort will include everyone who wants to flee, as President Biden insisted that the military mission would not be open-ended.
Mr. Biden reinforced on Friday that the United States would rescue all Americans and Afghans who helped the U.S. government, aiming to quell a global furor over the chaotic evacuation that has followed the Taliban’s return to power.
All of the entrance gates to the airport were closed on Saturday morning because of the chaos.
But with just 10 days until his deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops, Mr. Biden conceded that for many other Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban and their history of brutality, “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be.”
The president’s words, delivered at a White House news conference, summed up the anguish and uncertainty in Afghanistan as its new Taliban rulers, just days removed from a violent 20-year insurgency, cement their grip on a poor, war-weary nation.
Known for barring girls from school and chopping off the hands of thieves when the group led the country in the late 1990s, the Taliban have presented conflicting signals of how they intend to govern this time. Top leaders have pledged to protect the rights of women and the free press, even as fighters beat up protesters and search for supporters of the former government or its Western allies, according to security experts and witnesses.
The former insurgents have also demonstrated little aptitude for administering basic services in a country that is heavily reliant on foreign aid. A third of the population is now going hungry, according to the United Nations.
For many Afghans, desperation is deepening. At least a quarter-million people have fled their homes since the end of May as the Taliban marched steadily across the country. About 80 percent of them are women and children, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
At a park in central Kabul, people who had escaped the Taliban’s march across northern Afghanistan in recent weeks were stuck in dust-blown makeshift settlements, washing their clothes in a stream on Saturday morning and unsure of where to turn.
Days after they reached Kabul, the Taliban seized the city of six million, and now they may be stranded without assistance as international aid groups try to evacuate staff members who they worry are at risk of Taliban reprisals.
The focal point of the evacuation crisis is Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the last major exit point for foreigners and Afghans, now encircled by concrete blast walls and razor wire, and watched over by Taliban soldiers waving weapons.
As more than 5,000 U.S. troops manage the evacuation effort inside the airport gates, the scene outside has been marred by confusion and panic, with reports of Taliban fighters beating back crowds and turning away Afghans who hold travel documents.
“Go back to your home, or I will shoot you,” one Taliban fighter warned a man, according to a person who witnessed the encounter.
This week, images of an infant being hoisted over a razor-wire fence into the arms of American soldiers added to global outcry over the evacuation effort. The Pentagon said that the baby was sick, had received treatment and was later returned to his father.
Mr. Biden has insisted on a full troop withdrawal, arguing that it is time to end the United States’ longest war. After fighting the Taliban for two decades, U.S. military commanders are now working with their former adversaries to ensure safe passage to the airport, an arrangement that the Biden administration has acknowledged might not hold.
It complicates an already fraught process that has been stymied by politics and bureaucracy. The International Rescue Committee estimates that more than 300,000 Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the United States since 2001, but only a minority qualify for refugee status.
Mr. Biden said on Friday that he would commit to airlifting Afghans who had helped the U.S. war effort, but that Americans were his priority.
“Any American who wants to come home,” he said, “we will get you home.”
The Pentagon said on Friday that 169 Americans had been rescued from a hotel in Kabul, a rare U.S. military rescue mission beyond the airport grounds since the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital nearly a week ago.
Three UH-47 helicopters based near Hamid Karzai International Airport ferried the group to safety on Thursday, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman told reporters.
The Americans had gathered at the Baron Hotel, a designated meeting point for evacuees in Kabul, from which they intended to walk the 200 yards to the Abbey Gate entrance to the airfield, Mr. Kirby said.
But officials expressed concern about a large crowd at the entrance, and U.S. commanders at the airport decided to pick up the Americans instead.
The helicopters landed next to the hotel, loaded up the passengers and flew the short hop back to the nearby airfield without incident, Mr. Kirby said.
Earlier Friday, President Biden said he did not want to expand the perimeter around the airport to help with the rescue effort, because he feared that doing so would open the floodgates.
“There will be judgments made on the ground by the military commanders,” he added, “and I cannot second-guess those judgments.”
Outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday, a frenzied crowd of Afghans gathered on the Taliban-controlled side of a concrete wall topped with razor wire to beg a group of Marines to give them access to freedom.
Suddenly, the mass of outstretched hands produced a baby, no more than a few months old, and held the child up for the soldiers to see. As if handling a piece of luggage, a Marine plucked the infant by a single arm, passing the child behind him before turning back to the crowd.
The scene is harrowing to watch, which is precisely why a video of it was quickly transmitted around the world, fueling anger at a haphazard evacuation process. By Friday, the U.S. military was eager to share that the infant had been safely reunited with a family member.
“The baby seen in the video was taken to a medical treatment facility on site and cared for by medical professionals,” Maj. James Stenger, a spokesman for the Marines, wrote in an email. “I can confirm the baby was reunited with their father and is safe at the airport.”
Major Stenger did not provide additional details, including how many children had been taken to similar treatment facilities in recent days. But he sent a series of photos showing Marines playing with children at military checkpoints and giving children water.
“This is a true example of the professionalism of the Marines on site, who are making quick decisions in a dynamic situation in support of evacuation operations,” he said.
For two decades, Americans have understood the human cost of the war in Afghanistan primarily through the deaths of thousands of American and Afghan soldiers. But this week, images of babies and young children hoisted into the arms of U.S. commandos highlighted what the toll has been to the innocent, prompting emotional reactions from people around the globe.
The quick resolution to a heart-wrenching and viral photo belied a chaotic and rapidly unfolding scene in which multiple children were placed into the care of American troops in last-ditch attempts to get them to freedom.
Seeking to restore calm in the face of what he called “heartbreaking” images, President Biden said on Friday that about 6,000 U.S. troops were working to restore order. He said he was committed to the evacuation of Afghans as well as Americans, before adding that rescuing U.S. citizens would come first.
“We have seen gut-wrenching images of panicked people acting out of sheer desperation,” Mr. Biden said. “It is completely understandable. They are frightened. They are sad. I don’t think anyone of us can see these pictures and not feel that pain on a human level.”
Responding to a question about why he had not authorized the military to expand the perimeter around the airport so that more people could reach flights out, Mr. Biden said he didn’t want to open the floodgates.
The military cannot expand the perimeter without authorization from the president.
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, raising the national flag instead of the white Taliban flag has become an act of resistance.
We filmed with Crystal Bayat, an activist who helped lead Kabul’s Independence Day protests just days after the Taliban took the city. One of seven women at a protest of roughly 200 people, she led the pack, shouting, “Our flag is our identity!”
Ms. Bayat has been a vocal critic of the Taliban, and despite threats against her, did not want The New York Times to conceal her identity. She says she continues to speak out on behalf of Afghan women who are too scared to leave their homes.
Even as fear and chaos grip Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover, years of war, the Covid-19 pandemic and drought linked to climate change have created a broader humanitarian crisis in which 14 million people — a third of the country’s population — are going hungry, according to the United Nations food agency.
The World Food Program said this week that two million Afghan children were among the malnourished. “The combined effects of drought and the coronavirus pandemic, on top of years of conflict, look set to worsen the food security situation,” the organization said.
Mary Ellen McGroarty, the agency’s country director for Afghanistan, said this week that the second devastating drought in three years had severely affected food resources, destroying crops and livestock. She said the war had displaced many Afghans and that a harsh winter could make things worse.
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, and the Security Council appealed on Monday for more humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Before the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the capital, Mr. Guterres had warned that the country was “spinning out of control.”
Shabia Mantoo, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said on Friday that 550,000 Afghans had been displaced this year. Even before the recent scenes of desperate people hoping to board flights out of Kabul, many people had been trying for weeks to get out of Afghanistan as the Taliban advanced through the countryside.
The exodus has raised alarm in neighboring countries and in Europe. In Germany and other countries, many politicians fear that an influx of Muslim asylum seekers could fan far-right populism and an anti-immigrant backlash, as happened after large numbers of refugees from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria came to Europe in 2015.
Afghans already make up one of the world’s largest populations of refugees and asylum seekers, and account for more asylum claims in Europe than any other national group, except for Syrians.
Kabul’s largest mosque, a grand, blue-domed building in the heart of the old city, was overflowing with the faithful for Friday prayers when a group of Taliban fighters entered.
These were special forces fighters — and an escort for Khalil Haqqani, a member of one of the most powerful networks behind the Taliban’s rise to power and now an integral part of their moves to set up a government.
His protection detail dressed like the commandos in the military of the now deposed Afghan government. They wore uniforms and helmets, had night-vision goggles and carried themselves with a professional deportment.
They cleared a space for Mr. Haqqani in the front row, where he watched — a new American-made M4 assault rifle at his side. After the sermon by the imam of the mosque ended, Mr. Haqqani rose to address those present.
“Our first priority for Afghanistan is security,” he told the crowd, which flowed out onto the street. “If there is no security, there is no life. We will give security, then we will give economy, trade, education for men and women. There will be no discrimination.”
He was greeted by rapturous cheers.
The scene was a reminder that the Taliban enjoy broad support in many pockets of Afghanistan, although it is hard to know how deep that support runs, as Afghans have long learned to survive by cheering on those who seize power.
“People are happy now, because the Taliban brought security,” said a security guard near a money exchange booth, who declined to give his name. “But these are only the first days. It depends on how they rule whether the people will support them.”
For the moment, Mr. Haqqani basked in the reception. He was the victor and carried himself as such.
In the long and twisted tale of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, few groups have played as important a role as the Haqqani network.
Founded by the renowned mujahedeen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani in the late 1970s, the family’s network is suspected of aiding in Osama bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora in 2001. Khalil Haqqani is Jalaluddin’s brother, and the uncle of the Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani.
After the U.S. invasion, the Haqqani family ran an operation that vexed and complicated the war effort for years.
During the conflict, the Haqqanis refined a signature brand of urban terrorist attacks and cultivated a sophisticated international fund-raising network. It was a major factor in the United States military’s push to keep troops in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani network has kidnapped and held for ransom many foreigners over the years, including a New York Times journalist, his interpreter and their driver, in 2008. The reporter and interpreter escaped after eight months, and the driver a month later.
Khalil Haqqani is on both the U.S. and United Nations terrorist lists. And along with several members of the family, he is now playing a prominent role in the new Taliban regime.
He said that he had been consulting with Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, and former President Hamid Karzai. One of Mr. Haqqani’s other nephews, Anas Haqqani, was part of the Taliban’s recent diplomatic delegation in Qatar and has also been in direct talks with Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Karzai.
After the sermons concluded and the crowds thinned on Friday, Mr. Haqqani asked to speak with a New York Times photographer working in Kabul.
He said that journalists would be safe now that the country was at peace, and that women, too, would be protected.
“We have good intentions,” he said.