By a Biometrica staffer
The U.S. government and intelligence community are keeping their focus on the events unfolding in Afghanistan after the country was swiftly taken over by the Taliban in the wake of the withdrawal of American troops from the country. The two-decade military presence in Afghanistan saw the deployment of more than 750,000 American military personnel, with over 2,400 service members being killed and 22,000 wounded in the war.
Here’s a quick round-up of what we know so far about what’s happening in Afghanistan and what this could mean going forward.
Per Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, the Taliban is cooperating with American forces trying to evacuate civilians from the country. The extremist group has agreed to provide “safe passage” out of the capital, on a U.S.-direct airlift. Some sources are estimating that there could still be as many as 15,000 American citizens stuck in Afghanistan today.
Details on the timeline of such an evacuation are still being worked out, while American citizens, their Afghan allies, and others struggle to make their way to Kabul. U.S. officials are speaking to Taliban commanders “multiple times a day,” trying to ensure peace at the airport, per a Pentagon spokesperson. President Biden has set a deadline for Aug. 31 for the evacuations to conclude.
It appears as though the only way out of the country is through the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, with the Taliban having set up checkpoints all across the rest of the country. As such, the Pentagon is sending in additional U.S. troops to help secure the airport over the next few days, bringing the total military presence up to over 6,000.
By Wednesday, the government hopes to be conducting one evacuation flight every hour. The passengers on board will include American citizens, Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), and nationals of other countries stuck in Afghanistan. On Monday, the U.S. government also said it would usher around 20,000 Afghans who had qualified for SIVs to U.S. air bases.
The airlift was briefly interrupted on Monday, Aug. 16, when a scramble led to many attempting to cling to the wheels and exterior of American military aircrafts that were departing Afghanistan. At least seven people died, with the U.S. Air Force announcing Tuesday that it had discovered human remains in the wheel well of one of the aircrafts.
Some of those who had made it to the airport managed to get on board the cargo plane, scrambling up the half-open ramp as it prepared for take-off. An image went viral on the internet showing hundreds of Afghans crowded into the holding, desperate to take any opportunity they can to leave the country as the Taliban takes over.
On Tuesday, 12 flights evacuated 1,100 U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and their families, according to the White House.
On last Sunday, Aug. 15, as it became apparent that the Taliban’s progress had been quicker than expected, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned senators that the country needs to be alert, as the resurgence of the ultra-conservative and religious group could prompt quicker-than-expected rise in the number of terrorist threats directed at the U.S.
The Taliban, however, has begun what some are calling a publicity campaign, with the group’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, holding a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday, Aug. 17, in which he reassured the West that no harm would come to anyone in the newly christened Islamic Emirate and that no one would be harmed “from [Afghanistan’s] soil,” either.
Mujahid stressed that Afghanistan would no longer prove a fertile ground for radical Islamic terrorism, in an attempt to show that the organization has matured past its reputation from 20 years ago. The country’s sheltering of Al-Qaeda leader and mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is what had initially led to American and NATO intervention in the country.
Experts on Middle Eastern politics are warning, however, that the Taliban has made similar promises in the past and cannot be trusted. Defense and intelligence experts say that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will undoubtedly prove to be a safe harbor for extremist groups like Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
Despite how keen the group seems to be to establish ties with the international community and gain legitimacy for its rule, the Biden administration has not yet decided whether it will recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Officials say the organization will have to show it can walk the walk before it gains any degree of trust.
Per Mujahid, the Taliban will continue to allow foreign embassies, international organizations, and aid agencies to operate in the country, and will guarantee their security. The new government also committed to allowing a private, free, and independent media, who will be allowed to critique the Taliban, though Mujahid did add that they “should not work against [our] national values.”
He also said that there will be no back-sliding on women’s rights, as has been widely feared over the last several weeks. He confirmed there will have to be compliance with the constraints of sharia law, but added that women will be allowed to work and study. He said anyone who had worked with foreign governments or militaries, Afghanistan’s previous administration, or against the Taliban in general would be “pardoned.”
Protecting Afghan Allies
Federal agencies and other organizations that engaged in humanitarian work in Afghanistan over the last 20 years are now urging their employees and other personnel to purge websites and social media of any information that could put Afghan civilians and allies into the Taliban’s crosshairs. The State and Agriculture Departments, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are just a few of the entities making such recommendations.
The fear is that the Taliban will dole out retribution against anyone found to have worked with in the past or who are currently working with Americans or pro-government figures. The animosity also extends to those groups or people who may have simply benefited from the services provided by Western agencies, and anyone who provided support in infrastructure development, education, and farming to Afghans.
Afghans are themselves battling over which documents to destroy or erase, knowing that some of the paperwork they possess is crucial if they are to have any hope of getting a visa out of the country, but also knowing that anything that shows ties to anti-Taliban forces could be found and could result in retribution from the new government.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal have jointly asked the government to ensure the safe evacuation of hundreds of their journalists, local citizens who have worked with the organizations, and their family members who are stuck in Afghanistan. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that there are around 300 journalists struggling to reach safety in Kabul, and are reviewing hundreds of additional cases.
The Washington Post is reporting that the Office of Foreign Assets Control within the Department of the Treasury has frozen that portion of the Afghans’ central bank reserves that are held in American bank accounts, amounting to billions of dollars that the Taliban will not be allowed to touch.