Kabul airlift stumbles as security worsens, bottlenecks hit

Kabul airlift stumbles as security worsens, bottlenecks hit
The United States on Saturday urged its citizens in Afghanistan to avoid travelling to Kabul airport for now, citing 'potential security threats' near its gates.
4 min read
Chaos has erupted at the airport since the Taliban takeover [Getty]

The emergency airlift from Kabul hit stumbling blocks on Friday and Saturday as flights were delayed, bottlenecks appeared in reception centres and thousands of Afghans continued to struggle to reach safety. 

Here is a round-up of the latest developments:

Worsening security

The United States on Saturday urged its citizens in Afghanistan to avoid travelling to Kabul airport for now, citing "potential security threats" near its gates.

Most roads in the capital were largely deserted save for the route to the airport, which was choked with people scrambling to join a US-led evacuation.

Conditions outside Hamid Karzai International Airport have been chaotic, with reports of people seeking to leave being beaten by Taliban fighters.

"Because of potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport, we are advising US citizens to avoid travelling to the airport," the alert said.

The US military on Friday said it sent helicopters to rescue more than 150 Americans unable to reach the airport, in the first evidence of its forces going beyond the compound to help people seeking evacuation.


US aircraft flew about 6,000 people, including a couple of hundred US citizens, out of Kabul in the 24 hours to early Friday, until flights were halted because of a lack of space at transit bases.

Officials confirmed that operations stalled for several hours because a receiving base in Qatar could not take any more evacuees.

"We've been very honest about the fact that we know that we're fighting against both time and space," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. "That's the race we're in right now."

Major General Hank Taylor said 17,000 people - including 2,500 Americans - had been evacuated since August 14, with many flown first to Qatar or Kuwait. 

Live Story

Evacuee accounts from Qatar describe sleeping on the floor in sweltering heat in a US aircraft hanger for three days or more, with limited facilities.

More than 7,000 people have been evacuated to Qatar, an official from the Gulf state said.

"At the request of NGOs, educational institutions and international media organisations, we evacuated hundreds of Afghan employees and their families, as well as female students across the country," a Qatari official who declined to be identified told AFP.

Doha will eventually settle up to 8,000 Afghans, according to the Qatari official, who stressed that many of the 7,000 people in Qatar were transiting to third countries.

The US and Germany had agreed on Friday to use the Ramstein US military base in western Germany to ease pressure.

The base can accommodate about 5,000 people. 

Around 1,150 people landed there on Saturday, and are expected to depart for the US in "a few days", a spokeswoman for the base said. 

Meanwhile, more than 8,500 people have transited the UAE so far, according to the government.

Deadline 'impossible'

"It's mathematically impossible" for the US and its allies to evacuate tens of thousands of their Afghan personnel and families by August 31, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned on Saturday.

"We have complained" to the Americans that their security at Kabul airport was overly strict and hampering attempts by Afghans who worked for the Europeans to enter, Borrell said by telephone from Spain.

Switzerland said the worsening security had delayed an evacuation flight they had organised from the Uzbek capital of Tashkent because too few people had been able to get there from Kabul.

They said the Germans had also postponed evacuation flights from Tashkent.

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod on Saturday said 450 people had now been evacuated to Denmark, up from 384 on Friday.

Live Story

In an indication of the slow pace, Greece said two of its citizens had made it out: one on a British flight to London; the other via Qatar.

EU urges members to step up

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday appealed to European Union states to take in Afghan refugees, promising financial support from Brussels.

"To those who cannot go back or stay home, we have to offer alternatives," said von der Leyen, after visiting a base in northeast Spain that will serve as a reception centre for Afghans who worked for the EU.

"The Commission stands ready to look into the necessary budgetary means to support EU member states who will step up and help resettle refugees," she added.

Compassion amid security fears

Meanwhile, images of US military appearing to aid desperate Afghan parents attracted attention, with one video of a Marine lifting a baby over the razor wire around the airport going viral.

The video, which shows the infant being pulled up by one arm high above a crowd of Afghans seeking to enter the airport, took over social media nearly one week into the airlift.

"The parent asked the Marines to look after the baby because the baby was ill," the Pentagon's Kirby told reporters.

The Marine "took it to a Norwegian hospital that is at the airport. They treated the child and returned" it to the father, he said.

There was no information about the family's fate or status.

The US military released a number of images that appeared to show them caring for Afghan children -- including holding babies and giving water to a young boy.