American troops have begun arriving in Afghanistan to help evacuate thousands of people, including embassy staff, and the Afghans and their families who worked for them as a Taliban offensive draws ever closer to Kabul.
Diplomats and citizens of a host of Western countries are scrambling to get out of the capital, with insurgent fighters now camped just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away after a campaign that has seen provincial capitals fall rapidly.
US embassy personnel were ordered to begin shredding and burning sensitive material, as units from a planned redeployment of 3,000 US troops began arriving to secure the airport and oversee evacuations.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said most of the troops will be in place on Sunday and “will be able to move thousands a day” out of Afghanistan. “Capacity is not going to be a problem,” he said.
Helicopters have been flying back and forth between the Kabul airport and the sprawling American diplomatic complex in the heavily fortified Green Zone, 46 years after the Americans were airlifted from Saigon, marking the end of the Vietnam War.
The UK said around 600 soldiers would be deployed in the short term to support departing British citizens. Earlier on Friday, many countries, including Spain, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, announced the withdrawal of staff from their respective embassies.
Canada said the first planes loaded with asylum seekers already landed in Toronto on Friday, as part of its promise to host up to 20,000 Afghan refugees, including women leaders and government workers.
On Friday, the insurgents seized control of four more provincial capitals, and on Thursday they seized Kandahar and Herat, the second and third largest cities. Afghan government forces are in disarray and there are reports that Vice President Amrullah Saleh has fled.
US military intelligence suggests that Kabul could be under pressure within 30 days. If trends continue, the Taliban are likely to gain full control of the country in months, he says. Refugees from relentless insurgent offensives elsewhere have flooded the capital.
The refugees Canada will host include the “particularly vulnerable” still in the country or those who have already fled to neighboring states. Among them are human rights activists, persecuted minorities and journalists.
Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said Canada “owes a debt of gratitude to the Afghans and that we will continue our efforts to bring them to safety.” Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said: “The situation in Afghanistan is heartbreaking and Canada will not sit idly by.”
Officials said Canadian special forces were part of a contingency plan to airlift embassy personnel out of Kabul, but no details were provided due to the sensitive nature of the security operation.
For Kabul residents and the tens of thousands who have sought refuge there in recent weeks, the overwhelming atmosphere was one of confusion and fear for what lies ahead. “We don’t know what’s going on,” one resident, Khairddin Logari, told Agence France-Presse.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres previously said he was “deeply disturbed” by reports of the mistreatment of women in areas taken over by the Taliban, who imposed an ultra-austere form of Islam in Afghanistan during their rule of 1996-2001.
“It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-to-win destruction of the rights of Afghan girls and women,” Guterres said.
The scale and speed of the Taliban’s advance has shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that invested billions in the country after toppling the Taliban in the wake of the 9/11 attacks nearly 20 years ago.
Despite swift evacuation efforts, the Biden administration said a full takeover by the Taliban was not inevitable.
“Kabul is not currently in an environment of imminent threat,” Kirby said on Friday, although he acknowledged that Taliban fighters were “trying to isolate” the city.
The Taliban offensive has accelerated in recent days, with the capture of Herat in the north and, a few hours later, the capture of Kandahar, the spiritual heart of the group in the south.
Kandahar resident Abdul Nafi told AFP that the city was calm after government forces abandoned it for the sanctuary of overseas military installations, where they were negotiating the terms of surrender. “I went out this morning, I saw white flags of the Taliban in most of the squares of the city,” he said. “I thought it might be the first day of Eid.”
Pro-Taliban social media accounts have bragged about the vast spoils of war captured by insurgents, posting photos of armored vehicles, heavy weapons and even a drone seized by their fighters on abandoned military bases.
In Herat, the Taliban captured strongman Ismail Khan, who helped lead the defense of the provincial capital along with his militiamen.
Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Loghar province, was the last city to fall on Friday, putting the Taliban within close range of Kabul.
With Agence France-Presse
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism