As a desperate U.S. effort to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan gained momentum on Monday, Taliban leaders rejected a suggestion from President Biden that American forces might remain past an Aug. 31 deadline to complete the operation, injecting fresh urgency into an already frantic process.
American officials are increasingly worried that even with the vast number of Afghans, Americans and people of other nationalities evacuated in recent days — a total of about 10,400 people in the 24 hours from Sunday to Monday alone, according to the White House — many still remain to be rescued. In recent days, that operation has increasingly focused on the Americans still left, over the Afghans who worked with the United States.
On Monday, a State Department official said that some former Afghan military interpreters or other close U.S. allies, a designated priority group for evacuations, were being turned away from the airport by American officials in order to give priority to U.S. passport and Green Card holders in recent days. The official was not authorized to brief the press, and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official’s account was supported by interviews with Afghans who have approached the airport in recent days, and with American veterans’ groups and other organizations that have tried to organize evacuations for interpreters and other Afghans at risk from the Taliban.
On Monday night, the State Department denied the accounts of Afghans’ being turned away. In a statement responding to questions from The New York Times, the department said, “Our overriding priority remains to put as many people as possible on departing planes as quickly as possible.”
There are still thousands of Americans, and a far larger number of Afghans who supported the two-decade war effort, believed to be stuck in a capital where signs of the Taliban tightening its grip were everywhere on Monday. Many people were hiding at home, terrified of encountering Taliban checkpoints on their way to the airport, according to interviews with The New York Times. Many more Afghan allies are still stranded in outlying cities and towns.
The Pentagon has begun deploying helicopters and troops into select spots in Kabul to extract stranded American citizens, including at least two cases in which a total of 350 Americans were picked up and taken to the airport, the Pentagon said. And as of Monday, Pentagon officials said that the military, which has 5,800 Marines and soldiers in Kabul, had helped to evacuate a total of 37,000 people from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, the day before the capital fell to the Taliban.
But at Kabul’s international airport, where all the flights are being organized, chaos and violence were still keeping thousands of Afghans from entering for evacuation.
On Monday, gunfire erupted in the tense, milling crowds outside the airport’s North Gate, which is controlled by American troops. A member of the Afghan security forces died in a firefight with unidentified attackers, according to the German military. It did not specify which group the Afghans were affiliated with. Three other members of the Afghan forces were wounded in the skirmish. American and German soldiers were also drawn into the fight but were not harmed.
One Afghan man who said he had the proper travel documents and had been summoned to the airport to board an evacuation flight, said he gave up because he had four children under the age of 6, and could not risk them getting lost or trampled in the heaving crowd outside the gates. He returned home in despair.
“There is no way for families with kids,” said the man, who spoke on condition that he not be named. “I couldn’t bring them with me because of the crush. We tried for almost a week but couldn’t reach the gate.”
All that has prompted a diplomatic pressure campaign on Mr. Biden to keep American troops at the airport for a while longer. British and French officials said they would ask Mr. Biden to extend the evacuation on Tuesday during a virtual meeting of leaders of the Group of 7 countries, convened by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
A delay of a few days, they said, would still allow Mr. Biden to pull out the last American soldier by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that led the United States into war in Afghanistan.
“We are concerned about the Aug. 31 deadline set by the United States,” said the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on a visit to the United Arab Emirates. “More time is needed to complete the current operations.”
The British ambassador to Washington, Karen Pierce, said likely topics for the G7 meeting would include questions for Mr. Biden on longer-term plans for engaging with Afghanistan’s new rulers: How to continue to deliver humanitarian aid? How to coordinate more resettlement of Afghans who do manage to leave? And how to hold the Taliban to international account?
On Monday, a spokesman for the Taliban in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, ruled out any extension beyond Aug. 31, saying it would be a “clear violation” of its agreement with the United States on the withdrawal of troops. But it was not clear how, given the Taliban’s diffuse command structure and complicated political calculations, the group would react to a brief extension of the American military presence.
The senior U.S. envoy for talks with the Taliban leaders, Zalmay Khalilzad, is in Qatar talking with the Taliban diplomatic delegation there, officials said. One senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, said that the Aug. 31 evacuation deadline was under discussion there.
With just eight days to go until Mr. Biden’s stated deadline, the atmosphere was anxious in Kabul.
Pentagon officials said on Monday that Rear Adm. Peter G. Vasely, a former member of the Navy SEALs who is now the top U.S. military officer in Afghanistan, talks daily with his Taliban counterparts regarding security measures at the airport.
Other American officers down the military chain of command in Kabul have also engaged with Taliban commanders on specific security and threat reduction issues, the officials said.
The regular discussions between American and Taliban commanders yielded an agreement in which Taliban fighters expanded the security perimeter outside the airport, pushing back the enormous crowds of Afghans and others seeking access to flights out.
The Taliban have also continued to hold talks in Kabul with former Afghan leaders — one of whom, former President Hamid Karzai, abruptly vacated his state-owned residence after the Taliban had disarmed his guards and took over security of his compound, Afghan officials said.
But Taliban officials said that most of the deliberations were within their own ranks, and some Afghan figures said there had been no involved discussions yet over the details of how the Taliban will govern.
On Monday, Taliban leaders also met with hundreds of Afghan imams and religious school administrators in Kabul to begin the group’s directions for education and morality. No women could be seen at the gathering.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Around other areas of Kabul on Monday, residents described a calm that was partly welcome but mostly eerie. Dozens of residents said they were trying to stay home as much as possible out of fear and uncertainty about what might trigger punishment from their new Taliban rulers. Women, in particular, have scarcely been seen in the central public areas where the Taliban were present in the largest numbers, some said.
Banks, government offices and schools were all still closed around the city, and some residents said the cash shortage was growing urgent.
“People have money in the bank, but they can’t cash it out. And the people can’t borrow because no one has cash,” said Rahmatullah, a journalist in Kabul who asked only to be identified by a single name out of fear of the Taliban.
Grocery stores were still largely open, he said, but prices for some staples had gone up sharply, increasing the misery.
Biden administration officials say they are still unable to give an exact number of Americans left in Afghanistan, no less of Afghan interpreters still waiting to be evacuated.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the United States had been in touch with “a few thousand Americans” and was working on making arrangements to get them out of the country.
In Kabul, Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and secured Special Immigrant Visas said they had received emails from the State Department in recent days asking them to come to the airport for evacuation.
“We’re telling people to be prepared to survive up to a day in the scrum” outside the airport, said Matt Zeller, a former C.I.A. officer on the Afghanistan desk, who founded No One Left Behind to help his former Afghan colleagues escape the country. “They make it inside only to be turned back.”
Mr. Zeller is one of many U.S. veterans who have mobilized to help their former Afghan colleagues get out of the country. On Sunday night, Mr. Zeller said, veterans and contacts in Afghanistan organized an operation to bring to the airport some 500 S.I.V. holders who were considered at high risk of Taliban reprisals. They were able to get the Afghans inside the airport, he said, but were turned back at what he described as a State Department checkpoint.
On Monday evening, Mr. Zeller said, Taliban soldiers approached the Afghans outside the airport gate and separated them according to their paperwork, telling visa holders they would not be allowed to enter.
Fearing that opportunities to get their colleagues safely out of Afghanistan were tightening, the veterans working on evacuation from afar described feelings of helplessness.
“I feel a moral obligation to get these people out,” said Tripp Adams, an Army veteran who has been working on the effort. “When you’re halfway across the world and you can’t do anything — when hardened warriors are calling me and they’re cracking — this is going to destroy a generation of veterans.”
Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Lara Jakes, Helene Cooper, Sharif Hassan, Najim Rahim, Jim Huylebroek, Matthieu Aikins, Carlotta Gall, Dan Bilefsky, Niraj Choksi and Isabella Kwai.