August 16, 2021, Afghanistan-Taliban news

By Melissa Mahtani, Meg Wagner, Michael Hayes, Melissa Macaya, Aditi Sangal, Brad Lendon, Joshua Berlinger and Kara Fox, CNN

Updated 12:05 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021
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1:13 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

It's been a day since Kabul fell to the Taliban. Here's what you need to know.

People struggle to cross the boundary wall of Kabul's Hamid Karzai international airport on August 16.
People struggle to cross the boundary wall of Kabul's Hamid Karzai international airport on August 16. EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Afghans are adjusting to their new reality after the Taliban took Kabul on Sunday afternoon, sealing their control of the country.

Here’s where things currently stand:

There is chaos at Kabul's airport: Scores of civilians are trying to flee the country, with chaotic scenes continuing to unfold at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai international airport.

Several men or youths were seen on video clinging to the fuselage of a US military C-17 aircraft as it taxied the runway on Monday afternoon, with scores more watching or running alongside the plane, some of whom were underneath the engines. A US military Apache helicopter was also seen swooping low over the tarmac in what appeared to be an effort to disperse the crowds of civilians, desperately trying to leave.

The US military has since suspended air operations while US troops try to clear the airfield of Afghans who have flooded the airfield, a US defense official told CNN. The temporary suspension is “while we make sure the airfield is secure,” the official said. 

Witnesses CNN has spoken to at the airport in Kabul also said they have heard gunshots fired throughout the day. It's unclear if the shots were fired at people or in the air to disperse crowds. 

While flights at the Kabul airport are closed off to civilian aviation, evacuation flights are still being able to take off, data tracking shows.

France and Finland are the latest countries to close their Kabul embassies and evacuate its staff whilst Britain’s first flight carrying UK nationals and embassy staff has now arrived in the UK.

The streets of the capital feel eerie and surreal: In the capital, Taliban fighters are relaxed and jubilant, guarding the US embassy and the presidential palace.

The militant group is now everywhere in the capital, walking the streets of Kabul with ease (and with American weapons in hand.)

CNN spoke with a handful of Taliban fighters in Kabul on Monday morning, who said that their current focus is to ensure a smooth transition of power. But outside the US embassy, some were chanting death to America, with smiles on their faces.

Throughout, the Taliban’s influence on the city is becoming visible, with men proactively painting over images of uncovered women outside of several beauty salons.

The Taliban are signaling what the future will look like: Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told CNN Sunday that the new Taliban government will include non-Taliban Afghans but said it would be “premature” right now to name who the officials will be.

When asked if the Taliban will call on the current Afghan army and police to join Taliban security forces, Shaheen said all those handing over their weapons and joining Taliban forces will be granted amnesty, and that their lives and property would be secure.

Shaheen also said Taliban policies regarding the education for girls and women is clear and that women can continue education from primary to higher education.

The Taliban official said the success of the military offensive was because the group has “roots among the people,” calling it a “popular uprising of the people.” He said diplomats and journalists in Afghanistan can continue to work, including the American embassy. 

Former President Ashraf Ghani is no where to be seen: The Taliban took control of the presidential palace in Kabul yesterday after ousted President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

Ghani was rumored to have fled to neighboring Tajikistan, but in a statement on Monday, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the Afghan president has entered the country or been in its airspace. It is still unclear where Ghani is.

Following his departure on Sunday, Ghani said in a Facebook post that he will “always continue to serve my nation through offering ideas and programs."

“Today, I came across a hard choice; if I should stand to face the armed Taliban who wanted to enter the palace, or leave the dear country that I dedicated my life to protecting and caring for the past twenty years,” he said. "In order to avoid the flood of bloodshed, I thought it was best to get out,” he added

US refugee resettlement agencies are preparing for a large influx of Afghan arrivals: The Department of Defense will potentially relocate up to 30,000 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants to the US, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin have the capability to house these applicants, Kirby said.

1:13 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

People are clinging to US planes taking off from Kabul airport

From CNN’s Anna Coren, Tim Lister, Barbara Starr and Vasco Cotovio

Video has emerged of several men or youths clinging to the fuselage of a US military C-17 aircraft as it taxied at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday. 

There are scores more people watching or following the plane, some of them underneath its engines. Another video shows a US military Apache helicopter swooping low over the tarmac in what appears to be an effort to disperse the crowds.

Witnesses CNN has spoken to at the airport confirmed the chaotic scenes. 

It’s unclear what happened to any of the people who can be seen clinging to the aircraft. 

CNN has reached out to the US military for comment.

Watch video:

1:13 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Bush-era official: Taliban 2.0 are like Taliban 1.0. — but with a better public relations campaign

A Taliban fighter mans a machine gun on top of a vehicle as they patrol along a street in Kabul on Monday, August 16.
A Taliban fighter mans a machine gun on top of a vehicle as they patrol along a street in Kabul on Monday, August 16. Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

The Taliban last controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, until the American and allied forces began an invasion of Afghanistan called Operation Enduring Freedom to stop the them from providing a safe-haven to Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda.

Now, as the Taliban regain stronghold in the country, they say Americans should "trust" them, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told CNN on Sunday.

“They should trust us … When we signed the agreement with them, from the beginning up to now, we have not attacked the American forces, not a single American soldiers have been killed because of our promise and commitment," he said.

However, this is just an example of the Taliban's improved strategic communications campaign, says retired US Army Brigadier Gen. Mark Kimmitt, who served as the former assistant secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

This means that while countries evacuate their citizens and diplomats amid the intensifying crisis, Kimmitt says the Taliban will likely not harm innocent civilians on their way out.

"The Taliban 2.0 are no different from the Taliban 1.0. They just have a much better public relations campaign," he said. "They're not going to start out their new rule with attempting to stop innocent diplomats and innocent civilians from getting out of the country. In fact, the last thing they want to do is start a fight because the best thing for them would be to get everyone out of the country so they can reestablish control."

"They're just masters at deception. They're masters at propaganda. They're masters at psychological warfare," he added. "So let's not fool ourselves by the propaganda. In six months this will be Taliban 1.0, pre-2001."

On whether this crisis could have been avoided, Kimmitt said:

"It's very simple. For all the money we spent, for all the years we've been there, and all the equipment we provided, you can't buy courage and can't buy commitment."

1:13 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

"Surreal scenes" are playing out across the streets of Kabul as the capital wakes up a new reality

From Clarissa Ward and Brent Swails in Kabul

It’s a sight that many Kabul residents thought would never come: Taliban fighters, relaxed and jubilant, standing outside the US embassy and presidential palace.

Eerie, bizarre and surreal scenes are unfolding across the Afghan capital on Monday, which fell to the militant group in just a matter of hours the day before. 

The Taliban are now omnipresent, walking the streets with ease – and with American weapons in tow. CNN spoke with a handful of self-assured Taliban fighters in Kabul on Monday morning, who said that their current focus is to ensure a smooth transition of power. They said they are there to provide security and to ensure there is no looting or criminality.

Yet outside the embassy, some were chanting death to America -- with smiles on their faces.

Taliban fighters stand guard along a street near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on August 16.
Taliban fighters stand guard along a street near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on August 16. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Across the city, the Taliban’s influence on the city has already become visible, with men proactively painting over images of uncovered women outside of several beauty salons. Still, several others had not yet been painted over yet.

CNN asked the Taliban fighters whether they will ban smoking, or make men grow their beards, as they did during their previous five-year-rule.

The Taliban fighters said that nothing will be implemented drastically or immediately, but that Afghans are Muslim people and want to live under Muslim law.

How society will fare under their leadership however, feels bleak to many, especially women and girls. Women’s rights have advanced over the last 20 years across the country. 

But overnight, women who have previously had some level of bodily autonomy have been told the only way to ensure they won’t have any problems with the Taliban is to cover up.

One Taliban fighter said female journalists would still be able to practice their profession as long as they adhered to these rules. Female journalists, he said, will be expected to wear the niqab, and should not engage with men outside of their family.

Outside of the palace, Kabul residents rushed to talk to the CNN team, with many struggling to process the dizzying speed of the capital’s fall.

One man said he felt numb.

“Actually, I feel nothing right now,” he said. “We want peace. We are tired of this ongoing war which is imposed by foreign countries on us for the last 45 years. So that’s why all Afghans are tired.”

He is unsure of what the future holds. 

“You know I cannot predict even in seconds right now and I can’t predict even minutes right now. So that’s why I don’t know what will happen tomorrow and what will happen after,” he said.

7:27 a.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Pentagon: Texas and Wisconsin military bases could house Afghan special visa applicants

From Brianna Keilar and Catherine Valentine

The Department of Defense will potentially relocate up to 30,000 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants to the US, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby confirmed to CNN, adding that Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin have the capability to house these applicants.

The Biden administration had curtailed the number of government-sponsored evacuation flights to the United States for Afghans who worked alongside the US as it prioritized the evacuation of American personnel from the country, three sources familiar with the situation had told CNN Sunday.

It is unclear how long the pause in flights will last and the situation remains fluid.

As of last week, refugee resettlement agencies were preparing for a large influx of Afghan arrivals, two of the sources said, and Biden administration officials were discussing an uptick in SIV flights.

On Sunday, a joint statement from the departments of Defense and State reiterated that the administration would "accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas."

7:22 a.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Key things to know about the Taliban and their history in Afghanistan 

Taliban fighters entered Afghanistan’s presidential palace hours after former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday, a milestone in the insurgent group’s assumption of control over the capital city Kabul.

One unit shared pictures of the palace interior – intact, but empty and apparently abandoned by Afghan officials – on an official Telegram account.

Taliban representatives had been in talks with the government for hours over who would rule the nation, following the militant group’s strikingly rapid advance across the country, in which it seized power over dozens of key cities, often with little to no resistance.

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban are a Sunni Islamist organization operating primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They formed in 1994 under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar a few years after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. They were members of the Afghan resistance fighters, known collectively as mujahedeen, who were students of Omar.

Taliban, in Pashto, is the plural of Talib, which means student.

The group’s aim is to impose its interpretation of Islamic law on Afghanistan and remove foreign influence from the country.

The group started gaining ground in 1994 and captured the capital city of Kabul in September 1996. They had a controlling presence in the country between 1996 to 2001.

During those years, the group imposed strict Islamic laws on the Afghan people. Women had to wear head-to-toe coverings, were not allowed to attend school or work outside the home and were forbidden to travel alone. Television, music and non-Islamic holidays were also banned.

Omar led the Taliban from the mid-1990s until his death in 2013. Omar formed a relationship with Osama Bin Laden in 1997.

Less than a month after terrorists linked to al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks, American and allied forces began an invasion of Afghanistan called Operation Enduring Freedom, to stop the Taliban from providing a safe-haven to al Qaeda and to stop al Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a base of operations for terrorist activities.

On Dec. 7, 2001 the Taliban lost its last major stronghold as the city of Kandahar fell.

Read more about the group here.

CNN's Clarissa Ward, Tim Lister, Angela Dewan and Saleem Mehsud contributed reporting to this post. 

6:47 a.m. ET, August 16, 2021

"Some people won't get back," emotional UK Defense Secretary says on Afghanistan

From CNN’s James Briggs in London

UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace struggled to hold back tears while admitting “some people won’t get back” from Afghanistan as British troops work to evacuate people from Kabul. 

Members of the British Army are working in Afghanistan to process people for evacuation, he said in an interview with UK radio station LBC on Monday, adding, “our obligation has to be, as many of the people through the pipeline as possible.”

Wallace broke down as he said there was "regret" that "some people won't get back."

“It’s sad and the West has done what it’s done. We have to do our very best to get people out and stand by our obligations and 20 years of sacrifice,” Wallace said when asked why he was emotional. 
The current plans for the evacuation concluding on Aug. 31 include all those who are “entitled personnel, British passport holders, British officials, and indeed all those Afghans” that the UK has “an obligation to," the Defense Secretary said.

The UK had been working for the last two weeks to process these three groups, however, he reaffirmed “we're not doing other diplomatic functions.” 

About 300 British passport holders and other members of the British government were flown out of Afghanistan on Sunday, Wallace told the BBC on Monday. The government aims to fly out a further 1,500 people over the next 24-36 hours, he said.

In a bid to get more people out he said they were removing “bureaucratic barriers” so that if people “have passed our tests and our screening, those Afghans can come in.” 

Meanwhile, members of the 16 Air Assault Brigade Parachute Regiment, along with logisticians, were brought in to secure part of Kabul airport and process people.

Once the UK’s ability to process has been improved, Wallace said the current speed and method for evacuation means that the UK “should have capacity for over 1,000 people a day to exit to the United Kingdom.”

1:14 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Some flights taking off from Kabul airport amid chaos

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in Lisbon, Gul Tuysuz in Istanbul and Tim Lister in Spain

Despite the chaotic scenes at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport and its closure to civilian aviation, evacuation flights are still taking off, social media video and flight tracking data shows. 

A Turkish Airlines Boeing 777-300 left Kabul airport at 1:14 PM local time (4:44 a.m. ET) after spending more than five hours on the ground, according to flight tracking platform FlightRadar24.

The flight was organized by the Turkish government and there were 324 passengers on board along with 12 crew members, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

US military aircraft, including several C-17 transport planes, have also been taking off from the airport, as shown by multiple social media videos analyzed by CNN.

7:02 a.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Taliban fighters enter Afghan news network's compound, collect weapons

The Taliban entered the Afghan news network TOLO news's compound in Kabul on Monday, according to the network.

Taliban members "checked the weapons of the security staff, collected govt-issued weapons, agreed to keep the compound safe," TOLO news said in a tweet.

Saad Mohseni, CEO of parent company Moby Media Group, said shortly afterwards that staff were safe and that TOLO news had remained on air.

"For those worried about ⁦@TOLOnews, I can assure you our folks are ok and that we have continued with our broadcasting, uninterrupted throughout this “transition,'" Mohseni said in a tweet.