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Biden says chaos from Afghanistan withdrawal ‘inevitable’

The US president said that some soldiers could remain past the August 31 deadline to ensure all Americans get out.

President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House in Washington, August 18, 2021 (AP)

US President Joe Biden said it had been impossible to leave Afghanistan without chaos, as the United States pleaded with the victorious Taliban to allow safe passage for people to flee.

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Thousands of Afghans and foreigners are still attempting to flee the country, fearful about the hardliners’ past record of human rights abuses.

Biden – under pressure at home and abroad over his handling of the withdrawal of US forces after 20 years of war – said on Wednesday that some soldiers could remain past the August 31 deadline to ensure all Americans get out.

The veteran Democrat also told ABC News that he believed it would have been impossible to leave Afghanistan “without chaos ensuing”, defending his actions.

Washington however expressed concern that the militants, who took over the country after a lightning offensive ending in Kabul at the weekend, were already reneging on promises of safe passage to the airport for Afghans wishing to leave.

Ghani in UAE, ‘political detainees’ freed

In the United Arab Emirates, ousted president Ashraf Ghani – who fled as the insurgents closed in on the capital – said he supported negotiations between the Taliban and former top officials, and was in his own talks to return home.

But US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Ghani was “no longer a figure” on the country’s complex political stage.

The Taliban have come full circle after being toppled from power by a US-led invasion in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The group has pledged not to seek revenge against opponents and to respect women’s rights, but the international community is sceptical about those promises.

As the Taliban moves to put a government in place, leader Haibatullah Akhundzada has ordered the release of “political detainees”, telling provincial governors to free them “without any restrictions or conditions”, the group said.

Taliban negotiator Anas Haqqani met with Hamid Karzai, the first Western-backed leader of Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, and Abdullah, who had led the government’s peace council, the SITE monitoring group said.

Ghani – who was in the United Arab Emirates, which said it was hosting him and his family “on humanitarian grounds” – said he wanted those negotiations to be a “success”.

Protests and gunfire

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday that the new regime would be “positively different” from their 1996-2001 stint, which was infamous for deaths by stoning, girls being banned from school and women from working in contact with men.

But while the Taliban leadership tried to project a new image, video footage shot by local agency Pajhwok Afghan News showed protesters in the eastern city of Jalalabad who were carrying the Afghan flag fleeing with the sound of gunshots in the background.

Local media said the residents were protesting the removal of the flags in favour of those of the hardline movement.

READ MORE: Taliban face first challenge as people come out with Afghan flags

And residents in Bamiyan reported that a statue of Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, killed by the group in the 1990s, had been decapitated.

Hazaras have long been persecuted for their largely Shia faith and were massacred in the thousands during the Taliban’s ruthless conquest of the country in the 1990s.

“We are not sure who has blown up the statue, but there are different groups of Taliban present here, including some… who are known for their brutality,” a resident told AFP, asking not to be named.

Desperation

Afghans and foreigners continued to flee the country Wednesday, with the United States and other nations stepping up evacuation airlifts from Kabul.

Desperate scenes from the airport at the start of the week have created searing images of Afghans terrified of the Taliban, and a diminished United States unable to protect them.

Biden said the Taliban were cooperating on letting Americans get out but added: “We’re having some more difficulty having those who helped us when we were in there.”

Sherman voiced alarm at accounts of harassment and checkpoints for Afghan nationals, despite the Taliban’s promises not to carry out reprisals.

As for the August 31 deadline for US forces to leave, Biden said: “If there are American citizens left, we’re going to stay to get them all out.”

Crowds built up outside embassies in Kabul on rumours that governments were offering asylum.

No pledges on number and duration

Educated young women, former US military translators and other Afghans most at-risk from the Taliban appealed to the Biden administration to get them on evacuation flights.

President Joe Biden and his top officials said the US was working to speed up the evacuation, but made no promises how long it would last or how many desperate people it would fly to safety “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters, adding that evacuations would continue “until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”

Afghans in danger because of their work with the US military or US organisations, and Americans scrambling to get them out, also pleaded with Washington to cut the red tape that they say could strand thousands of vulnerable Afghans if US forces withdraw as planned in the coming days.

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