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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters Wednesday that about 4,500 US troops had already arrived at Kabul’s main airport, but that the Taliban had not interfered with their actions and lines of communication with the militant group have remained open.
The US Department of Defense released images on Wednesday showing thousands of US troops help civilians at Hamid Karzai International Airport, days after they were reported to have fired into crowds mobbing transport aircraft that were attempting to leave.
The uncertain situation remained tense on Wednesday, as thousands of US troops began to arrive and set up operations. However, the issue of thousands of Afghans seeking to leave the country remained unresolved.
The Pentagon published several images of the troops assisting civilians at the airport, passing out water and helping to process the applications of what they called “eligible civilians.”
Marines with the @24thMEUMarines hand out water and process civilians for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Department is working closely with the @StateDept and partners & allies to process eligible civilians. pic.twitter.com/3wZvXmfr4l
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) August 18, 2021
The operation, dubbed “Allies Refuge,” will see some 6,000 US troops deploy to Karzai airport on the northern edge of Kabul, which the Taliban militant group seized on Sunday after it surrendered without a fight. Their sudden capture of the city, which US and Afghan officials didn’t anticipate would happen for at least a month, sent throngs of people to the airport seeking to exit the country.
Ironically, their deployment comes as the final departure day for US forces at the end of a 20-year-long occupation war is just days away. Having negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, the last US troops were slated to exit Afghanistan on August 31.
CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward, who interviewed Afghans lined up outside the airport on Wednesday, reported that many were among the hundreds of thousands who had collaborated with the US occupation and the US-backed government. Many had papers, including green cards, but were being barred from entering the airport after the chaos of Sunday and Monday, when many people were killed or wounded in scuffles, shooting, and attempts to hitch rides on the outside of US military aircraft taking off.
One C-17 that took off on Sunday was found after it landed in Qatar to have carried 640 passengers; the plane is cerified for just 134 passengers and the huge volume of people nearly exceeded its maximum weight limit.
A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported approximately 640 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport Aug. 15, 2021.
“I certainly don’t want to do anything to make the airfield less safe and we won’t do that. But we will continue to coordinate, deconflict with the Taliban and make sure that those people that need to get to the airfield have the right credentials to ensure passage,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters on Wednesday. “And the Taliban has been checking those credentials, and if they have them, they have allowed them to pass.”
US Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that the US Air Force was establishing an airlift to evacuate as many people as possible from the airport, with up to 20 sorties of C-17 Globemaster III transports flying every 24 hours and the capacity to increase that even more. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also said that the US had evacuated more than 2,000 people in the last 24 hours and processed another 4,800 willing to go.
Milley added that the Taliban was “in and around” the capital city but was not interfering with US military operations.
As the 300,000-strong Afghan army crumbled before a nine-day Taliban blitz, then-President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, reportedly with bags of money, although he later denied taking anything but the clothes on his back in a video filmed in the United Arab Emirates.