New York, August 24: Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief, William J. Burns, travelled to Kabul for talks with Taliban leaders anticipating pressure from the Group of 7 to extend the deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan from August. 31.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Burns, a longtime former diplomat, met on Monday Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban leader who led diplomatic negotiations in Qatar with the US government.
A key issue for the United States is getting the Taliban leadership to allow more time for evacuation operations from the Kabul airport. The United States is conducting a large airlift of people, including Afghans, Americans and others, out of Afghanistan. President Biden has set a deadline for that operation to be concluded by August 31, the NYT said.
The US has sent thousands of troops to secure the airport, and the pace of evacuations has stepped up in recent days. But getting Afghans from their homes to the airport in Kabul safely is becoming more difficult and dangerous, and it is not clear whether the U.S. government can maintain the pace of evacuations.
Former officials have said that the United States will need more time, perhaps until late September, to ferry out Afghans who have applied for special visas from the United States.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban in Qatar, said on Monday that any extension beyond Aug. 31 would be a “clear violation” of the United States’ agreement with the group on the withdrawal of troops.
Before being named as C.I.A. director, Mr. Burns had a long diplomatic career in which he specialized in delicate, secret communications. He titled his memoir “The Back Channel” and was responsible for the initial undisclosed discussions that ultimately lead to the Iran nuclear talks in the Obama administration.
And with the fall of the American-back government and the withdrawal of diplomats and troops from Afghanistan, the C.I.A. will bear much of the responsibility for monitoring Afghanistan going forward.
The C.I.A. and the National Security Council declined to comment. The Washington Post earlier reported Mr. Burns’ visit.
For now, the Taliban have allowed the operations to continue at the airport. Although some civilians have been harassed and beaten while trying to approach the airport, the Taliban have not overtly interfered with the American operations.
But U.S. officials worry about the prospects of attacks at the airport by the Islamic State and other groups.
American operations do not just need the passive support of the Taliban to allow the flights. They also need the group to actively stop ISIS and others from mounting attacks on Afghan civilians, including any suicide bombings outside the airport.
Despite the hard-line rhetoric, the Taliban have an incentive to cooperate. The acting government wants to secure international legitimacy and to try to avoid the isolation the group experienced in the 1990s, when it was last in power. Taliban leaders have urged international governments to maintain their embassies in Afghanistan.
Leaders of the Group of 7 nations are expected to press President Biden on Tuesday to keep U.S. troops in Kabul beyond Aug. 31 to complete a frantic evacuation of Americans, Afghan allies and others. But British officials were lowering expectations that Mr. Biden would go along with altering that deadline.
The president’s determination to end the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, coupled with a warning from the Taliban that they would not tolerate an extension, suggested that the leaders would face an uphill climb to change the timetable.
“I wish we had more time,” Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, told the BBC. “I think it is at the moment unlikely.” British troops, he added, had “literally hours to make sure everybody we can get through the gate.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair an emergency virtual meeting of G-7 leaders starting at 2:30 p.m. London time. It comes at a moment of acute strain in the trans-Atlantic alliance, with Britain and other NATO allies bruised by what they regard as the White House’s lack of consultation on the timing or tactics of the withdrawal.
Mr. Johnson spoke with Mr. Biden on Monday evening — the second time in a week — but neither the White House nor Downing Street alluded to an extension of the deadline in their accounts of the call.
“The leaders agreed to continue working together to ensure those who are eligible to leave are able to, including after the initial phase of the evacuation has ended,” said the British statement, which also cited a need for “diplomatic engagement to secure the progress made in Afghanistan and prevent a humanitarian crisis.”
While the evacuation will be the leaders’ most immediate priority, the aftermath of the withdrawal will also figure in the discussions, according to the British ambassador to Washington, Karen Pierce.
“What is the humanitarian response?” Ms. Pierce said. “What is the future engagement with Afghanistan for the West? Can we coordinate more resettlement of those Afghans who do manage to leave?” Britain, she noted, has committed to taking in 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan over the long term.
Other European officials said the meeting would be crucial to clear the air and prevent the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan from undermining other efforts in security and counterterrorism.
“The propaganda use being made of this online isn’t just in Taiwan, where China is claiming the West is untrustworthy,” said Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “It’s across Africa and elsewhere where we have commitments and contested space.”
The United States’ evacuation of its citizens and allies in Afghanistan is nearing a dangerous new phase as time runs out to rescue people it pledged to protect from violent Taliban reprisals.
At a virtual meeting scheduled for Tuesday, leaders of the Group of 7 nations are expected to ask President Biden to extend the evacuation, which the U.S. government had said it would finish by Aug. 31. The effort has picked up speed in recent days as U.S. forces pushed past Kabul’s airport to rescue stranded people in the city.
Mr. Biden has left the door open to the possibility of having U.S. troops remain past the deadline. But the risk of violence from the Taliban intensified on Monday after the group warned that there would be “consequences” if the American presence continued longer.
“They should finish the evacuation by Aug. 31 as they have promised,” said Mohammad Naem, a Taliban spokesman in Qatar. Another Taliban spokesman in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, said staying past the deadline would be a “clear violation” of an agreement between the two sides.
As leaders debate their strategies, conditions on the ground are growing more dangerous.
People trying to flee Afghanistan must brave Taliban checkpoints and jostle with desperate crowds outside the Kabul airport, risking injury or death. Seven Afghan civilians, including a toddler, have been trampled to death in the crowds, according to British military officials.
A hospital run by an international aid group has said it has taken in shooting victims from around the area of the airport. Many are turned away at the airport’s gates each day, leaving them to undergo the perilous journey again and risking Taliban retribution.
Other Afghans who supported the two-decade U.S. war effort, especially women, are terrified to leave their homes, scared of incurring the Taliban’s wrath at checkpoints.
The Taliban and U.S. officials have taken steps to ensure that the situation does not spiral further out of control, however. The top U.S. official in Afghanistan talks with the Taliban nearly every day, U.S. military officials have said, leading to an agreement that expanded the security perimeter outside the airport, with the goal of bringing more order to the chaos.
The Pentagon has deployed helicopters and troops into select spots in Kabul to extract stranded U.S. citizens and Afghan allies, at least twice venturing from the immediate area of the airport.
The U.S. military had helped secure the escapes of 37,000 people since Aug. 14, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, and has increased the pace recently. About 11,000 people were evacuated on Sunday, according to military officials.
But that represents a fraction of the U.S. citizens, foreign nationals and Afghan allies trying to leave the country, and the Biden administration has been unable to pinpoint how many people are in need of rescue.
Among the people turned away from the airport have been some Afghan military interpreters and other close U.S. allies, as American officials give priority to U.S. citizens and green card holders, according to a State Department official and several interviews with Afghans. The State Department denied the accounts of Afghans being turned away, saying in a statement that “our overriding priority remains to put as many people as possible on departing planes as quickly as possible.”
Automatic fire suddenly rang out from an abandoned government vehicle. He felt a burning sensation in his chest. Later, he would find out that five passenger had been killed in the chaos.
“Other drivers were so afraid,” said Mr. Mohammad, who had been hit by six bullets, “they didn’t even stop to help.”
Mr. Mohammad spoke this week from his bed at a hospital run by Emergency, an international humanitarian organization running hospitals in Afghanistan, giving its personnel a firsthand look at the violence there.
In interviews, they said they had seen a shift in violence, including more casualties from the Kabul airport. But they have also seen an ebbing of violence, a potentially positive sign, as well as a shift in the types of injuries.
When the Taliban battled government forces for control of the country, the patients arriving at Emergency’s hospitals had suffered trauma caused by airstrikes, mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and small explosives, said an official with the group at a Kabul-area hospital.
Now, conflict-related injuries tend to come from bullets, which he attributed to general lawlessness amid the Taliban takeover. Some people, the official said, were taking advantage of the lack of police.
Since then, the number of casualties has gone down, the official said. Now the group takes in about six people per day — generally, people suffering gunfire wounds — from armed clashes around the airport.
Another one of Emergency’s hospitals, in Lashkar Gah, in the southern province of Helmand, was receiving 50 casualties per day at the height of the siege of that city. They were forced to raise the criteria of admission. Soft tissue injuries, for example, were passed on to another government hospital.
Since last week, violence has dropped significantly, and now the hospital takes civilian trauma cases from other causes, like traffic accidents.
The Taliban are aware of their work. A man named Dr. Omar, who identified himself as a Taliban health director, had visited the Kabul hospital and told its administrators that they would be able to perform their work unbothered. Emergency has been able to send supplies to first aid outposts by road across the country.
One worker at the hospital was cautiously optimistic.
“It has been one week now,” the worker said. “The number of injured people is decreasing. We don’t hear gunshots anymore, and we don’t have concerns about suicide attacks. Even the casualties that come from the airport have been decreasing over the last three days.”
Some local workers remember what it was like when the Taliban ruled the country two decades ago, when life — particularly for women — was heavily restricted.
“Women are still walking around without a full veil,” the worker said. “But they’re afraid that when a government is announced, those policies will change.”
Still, the worker welcomed the new sense of security.
“The last three or four years, whenever I left my home, I said goodbye to my family, because I was not sure whether I would return to them,” the worker said. “But these days, to be honest, it is not a concern for me now. I hope it will last forever.”
NATO allies, upset by the withdrawal, again find themselves following a U.S. lead they dislike.
A report from Brussels says: For all of President Biden’s promises to respect and consult with the NATO allies who were so disdained by his predecessor, officials from Britain, France, Germany and Italy complain that there has been more diktat than conversation on Afghanistan.
Now that the rapid Taliban advance and rushed U.S. pullout have produced chaos and fear in Kabul for more than week, Mr. Biden is likely to hear grumbling on Tuesday in an emergency videoconference call among the Group of 7 leaders.
The crisis in Afghanistan raises once again the question that has dogged NATO virtually since the end of the Cold War: Will there be any serious shift in the way the alliance operates, with the United States leading and Europe following behind?
Whenever the United States acts without much regard for the allies’ views — in Libya and Syria, to say nothing of Iraq — it fuels new calls for European allies, in particular, to become less dependent on Washington in military and security matters. But more autonomy would mean more military spending, and there is little sign that European leaders have the political will for that.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO’s secretary-general from 2004 to 2009, said that European criticism of Mr. Biden was accurate, but also somewhat irrelevant, because “we Europeans have become addicted to U.S. leadership.”
Some of the calls for strategic independence are more serious — and angrier — than in the past.
“Europeans are up in arms, but there are no alternative options,” said Rem Korteweg, a senior fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch research institution. “So I take this with a grain of salt.”