Evacuations From Kabul Wind Down as U.S. Prepares to Pull Last Troops

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Evacuation flights from Kabul’s international airport began winding down on Saturday as the United States prepared to withdraw its remaining troops from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after carrying out a retaliatory airstrike in response to a terrorist attack that killed 13 American service members and as many as 170 civilians.

Britain’s evacuation of its citizens will end on Saturday, and the country will begin to bring its remaining troops home, Gen. Nick Carter, the chief of the defense staff, told the BBC’s Radio 4.

The troop departures signaled a tumultuous end to a 20-year war that has left the country awash in grief and desperation, with many Afghans fearing for their lives under Taliban rule and struggling with cash shortages and rising food prices.

“We haven’t been able to bring everybody out and that has been heartbreaking,” General Carter told the BBC. “There have been some very challenging judgments that have had to be made on the ground.”

France, too, has ended its evacuations, French officials said on Friday.

Three days remain before President Biden’s deadline of Aug. 31 for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Yet the mission was already slowing, as the military shifted from airlifting Afghan civilians to bringing home American troops and military personnel.

About 6,800 people were evacuated from the airport on Friday, bringing the total to 111,900 since the U.S. evacuation operation began on Aug. 14, Lloyd J. Austin III, the American secretary of defense, said on Saturday. That represented a significant drop from early Thursday, when White House officials said that 13,400 people had been evacuated from the Kabul airport in the previous 24 hours.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are still thought to be trying to flee the country, yet Mr. Biden and other global leaders have acknowledged that many will not get out before the deadline.

Outside Kabul’s airport on Saturday morning, roads remained closed and the large crowds that had strained to push inside had largely dissipated in the aftermath of Thursday’s suicide bombing, which struck as U.S. troops were screening people outside the airport. At the Abbey Gate, near where the bombing occurred, only two families and two young men still waited.

The airport’s South Gate remained open, and there was a growing backlog of buses carrying some 500 to 1,000 people, as military personnel screened for suicide vests and other explosives. Few people, if anyone, were getting through the airport gates.

Among those still hoping to leave were two brothers who said they had traveled 26 hours from Herat, a city in Western Afghanistan, and had managed to sneak past guards outside the airport’s perimeter to reach the Abbey Gate. One of them said he had been selected by a U.S. visa lottery.

The brothers knew of the deadly explosion at the gate two nights ago, “but what can we do,” one of them said on Saturday. “This is our only way out.”

Thursday’s airport attack was one of the deadliest in the nearly two decades since the U.S.-led invasion. American officials believe that “another terror attack in Kabul is likely,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Friday. “The threat is ongoing, and it is active. Our troops are still in danger.”

On Friday night, the U.S. military announced its first strike in response to the airport bombing. On Saturday, Pentagon officials gave more details of the operation, saying that the military had used a drone to kill two “high-profile” targets for the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K or the Islamic State Khorasan, a group that is foes of the Taliban and had claimed responsibility for the attack. Military officials said one other target was injured.

John F. Kirby, a Defense Department spokesman, called the two who were killed “ISIS-K planners and facilitators.”

An assistant to Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Saturday of the airstrike in Nangarhar Province, east of Kabul: “We have heard the reports about the Nangarhar incident, but we are trying to find the type of the incident and the casualties. After an investigation, we will react to that.”

The suicide bombing and the response from the American military came as Afghanistan’s economy, which was sustained for years by an influx of international aid, has been in free fall.

Teachers and other civil servants are struggling to support their families, and people have gathered outside banks and A.T.M.s in the hope of withdrawing money, only to return home cashless and in despair.

On Saturday, hundreds of Afghans protested outside one bank branch in Kabul and scores more marched through central Kabul to demand the reopening of banks that had closed after the Taliban takeover.

“Islamic government, give us our rights!” they chanted. One of the country’s largest banks, Azizi Bank, issued a statement to customers saying that it was waiting for Afghanistan’s Central Bank to resume operations before reopening.

A representative of the Central Bank said that it would reopen on Sunday, but that to prevent bank runs, it might not begin distributing money until a new government was established.

The Taliban have indicated that Hajji Mohammad Idris, a member of the movement, will serve as acting head of the Central Bank. News reports have indicated that Mr. Idris has no formal financial training.

Despite ending its presence in Afghanistan, the United States still has control over billions of dollars belonging to the Afghan Central Bank, money that Washington is making sure remains out of the reach of the Taliban.

Concern is also growing about the plight of farmers and herders, who form the backbone of Afghanistan’s rural economy. The country continues to be hit hard by a worsening drought that threatens the livelihoods of more than 7 million people who rely on agriculture or livestock, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned on Saturday.

“Farmers and livestock owners must not be forgotten in today’s humanitarian crisis,” said Qu Dongyu, the organization’s director-general. “Urgent agricultural support now is key to counter the impact of the drought and a worsening situation in Afghanistan’s vast rural areas in the weeks and months ahead.”

Reporting was contributed by Najim Rahim, Jim Huylebroek, Fahim Abed, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff.


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