August 17, 2021, Afghanistan-Taliban news

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

Updated 0402 GMT (1202 HKT) August 18, 2021
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8:33 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

US destroyed some Afghans' passports as they prepared to evacuate embassy in Kabul — but it's unclear why

From CNN's Nicole Gaouette, Kylie Atwood and Natasha Bertrand

The closed entrance gate of the US Embassy is pictured after the US evacuated its personnel in Kabul on August 15.
The closed entrance gate of the US Embassy is pictured after the US evacuated its personnel in Kabul on August 15. (Wakil Koshar/AFP/Getty Images)

American personnel destroyed the passports of some Afghans when they were getting rid of all sensitive materials at the US Embassy in Kabul in preparation for a full evacuation, according an update that Rep. Andy Kim’s office is sharing with people who request assistance with evacuations from Afghanistan. 

It is unclear why the passports were destroyed, but it is possible diplomats determined it would have been dangerous for the documents to fall into the hands of Taliban members, who could then target those Afghans.

Not having a passport creates major complications for Afghans who are desperately and urgently trying to get out of the country. 

“Visa and passport appointments at the Embassy have been canceled, and passports that were in the Embassy’s possession have been destroyed. Currently, it is not possible to provide any further visa services in Afghanistan,” the message from Kim's office says. “The Department of State advises all people waiting for processing to find shelter and wait for further instructions. They should not go to the airport until they are called to do so and should follow the instructions carefully.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski said that the US will have to come up with ways to verify the identity of Afghans whose passports were burned.

“We are going to have to take people without passports and vet them in other ways, like with their phone numbers for example. In many cases we know their contact information and their phone numbers and that is how we will have to identify them. Any Afghans braving the trip to the airport will not have wanted to go there with identifying documents, anyway,” Malinowski told CNN.

The US is not protecting the fully evacuated US Embassy in Kabul, but the compound is in a heavily fortified area, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price. 

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment about the destruction of the passports.

5:47 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

US military flights evacuated more than 1,000 people from Afghanistan Tuesday, State Department says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler:

US military flights on Tuesday “evacuated approximately more than 1,000 people, including 330 U.S. citizens and permanent residents,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Tuesday. 

This is an increase from the number provided by the administration earlier in the day.

Price said the US has “evacuated more than 3,000 people so far, including our personnel.” 

“Additionally, as we have said, we have relocated nearly 2,000 Afghan special immigrants to the United States,” he said

5:20 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Biden has his first known call with a foreign counterpart since the fall of Kabul

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins

In his first known call with a foreign counterpart since the fall of Kabul, President Biden has spoken with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to read outs from the White House and Downing Street.

The leaders "discussed the need for continued close coordination among allies and democratic partners on Afghanistan policy going forward," according to the statement from the White House.

The two agreed to have a virtual meeting with G7 leaders next week.

Here's the full White House readout:

President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke today regarding developments in Afghanistan. They commended the bravery and professionalism of their military and civilian personnel, who are working shoulder to shoulder in Kabul on the evacuation of their citizens and Afghan nationals who assisted in the war effort. They also discussed the need for continued close coordination among allies and democratic partners on Afghanistan policy going forward, including ways the global community can provide further humanitarian assistance and support for refugees and other vulnerable Afghans. They agreed to hold a virtual G7 leaders’ meeting next week to discuss a common strategy and approach.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to include the readout from the White House.

4:33 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

US opens investigation into human remains found in wheel well of plane that departed Kabul

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

The US Air Force Office of Special Investigations is opening an investigation into human remains found in the wheel well of a C-17 that took off from Kabul's international airport, the Air Force said in a statement.

The remains were discovered after the plane landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.  

"The aircraft is currently impounded to provide time to collect the remains and inspect the aircraft before it is returned to flying status," the statement said.

 

The crew made the decision to take off because of the deteriorating security situation at the airport after hundreds of Afghans breached the perimeter and surrounded the C-17. Video of Afghans running with the plane went viral, as did video of appearing to show Afghan civilians falling from the side of the plane in mid-air after desperately trying to hold on.

Note: This is a different flight from the C-17 which was packed with 640 people on board as it flew out. That flight left Sunday night.

4:23 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Key things to know about Taliban leadership as the regime takes shape in Afghanistan 

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, center, gestures as he addresses the first press conference in Kabul onTuesday, August 17.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, center, gestures as he addresses the first press conference in Kabul onTuesday, August 17. Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images

In the two decades since they were ousted from power, the Taliban have been waging an insurgency against the allied forces and the US-backed Afghan government.

The Taliban are led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a senior religious cleric from the Taliban's founding generation.

He was named as the Taliban's leader in 2016 after the group's previous leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, was killed in a US airstrike in Pakistan.

At the time, Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts' Network said the new Taliban leader might be able to "integrate the younger and more militant generation."

Another key player in the group is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban co-founder and deputy leader. Baradar has arrived in Afghanistan, a spokesperson for the Taliban's political bureau said Tuesday.

It marks the first time Baradar has set foot in the country for 20 years and comes 11 years after he was arrested in neighboring Pakistan by the country's security forces.

He was a prominent member of the Taliban regime when it was last in power, and his return will fuel concerns that the nature of the new government will mirror that era. Baradar currently heads the group's political committee, and recently met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Across Afghanistan, people are waiting to find out what kind of regime they will live under — and whether those who supported the US-backed government over the past 20 years will face retribution from the Taliban.

After the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996 until 2001, the Sunni Islamist organization put in place strict rules. Women had to wear head-to-toe coverings, weren't allowed to study or work and were forbidden from traveling alone. TV, music and non-Islamic holidays were also banned.

Through televised briefings, statements and press conferences, Taliban officials made assurances on Tuesday that retribution was not on the cards.

The group's deputy leader Maulvi Mohammad Yaqub told fighters not to "enter into homes of people or confiscate their cars," in an audio message distributed widely through Taliban channels.

But those promises have been met with skepticism by the international community, and instances of intimidation have already begun.

Read more about the Taliban and their control of Afghanistan here.

CNN's Julia Hollingsworth, Rob Picheta, Celine Alkhaldi, Nada Bashir and Nina Avramova contributed to this post.

3:38 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Spain extends offer to EU to temporarily host some evacuated Afghan nationals

From CNN’s Claudia Rebaza and Nada Bashir

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has expressed his government’s intention to temporarily host evacuated Afghan nationals who have worked for the European Union.

“Spain offers the high representative of the EU Josep Borrell to temporarily host Afghans who have worked for the European Union, before they are distributed among the member states,” Sánchez tweeted Tuesday.

The Prime Minister’s remarks come after a virtual meeting of EU foreign ministers to discuss the current situation in Afghanistan.

In an earlier statement, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said Member States would make “every possible effort” to ensure the security of all Afghan nationals who have worked with the EU, including offering them shelter within Europe.

 

3:42 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Former US ambassador to Afghanistan will head to Kabul to lead logistics and consular efforts

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Christian Sierra

John Bass, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan
John Bass, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images/FILE)

The State Department is dispatching career diplomat John Bass – who formerly served as US Ambassador to Afghanistan – to Kabul “to lead logistics coordination and consular efforts,” spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday.

The current top envoy in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, will remain as well and “will continue to lead our diplomatic engagement.”

“The Department of State is working around the clock to facilitate the swift, safe evacuation of American citizens, special immigrant visa holders and other vulnerable Afghans. We remain committed to accelerating flights for SIVs and other vulnerable Afghans as quickly as possible,” Price said.

Price noted that State Department “staff on the ground is communicating with American citizens in Kabul who are not at the airport with instructions on when and how to get there.”

“We have communicated to the first tranche of American citizens who have requested evacuation assistance,” he said.

“All remaining embassy staff will be assisting departures from Afghanistan and the department is surging resources and consular affairs personnel to augment the relocation of American citizens and Afghan special immigrants, special immigrants and elsewhere, adding personnel to assist with P1, P2 adjudication processing,” he said. “We successfully relocated many of our locally employed staff and are in direct contact with the remainder to determine who is interested in relocation and the process for doing so.”

3:34 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Top US general met with Taliban senior leaders in Doha Sunday ahead of Kabul airport visit today

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, visited Hamid Karzai International Airport on Tuesday, according to a release from US Central Command. 

Ahead of his visit today, the US general met with Taliban senior leaders in Doha Sunday and cautioned the leaders “against interference in our evacuation, and made it clear to them that any attack would be met with overwhelming force in the defense of our forces,” the release said.  

McKenzie engaged with “US military leaders on the ground” at HKIA today, the release said.

“I saw firsthand our defensive lay down and the work our forces are doing to efficiently operate the airfield while ensuring the safe movement of civilians and diplomats who are leaving Kabul,” McKenzie said in the release.

McKenzie said US military air traffic controllers and “ground handlers are rapidly scaling up operations to ensure the smooth flow of military reinforcements to the airport and the evacuation of US and partner civilians in coordination” with the State Department, the release said. 

The airfield is currently secure and “open to civilian air traffic,” the release said. 

US Central Command oversees US military operations in the Middle East.

 

4:21 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Former Trump defense secretary: Biden owns "mess" in Afghanistan

From CNN's Maureen Chowdhury

Mark Esper during his interview with Christiane Amanpour.
Mark Esper during his interview with Christiane Amanpour. CNN

Former Trump defense secretary Mark Esper said that President Biden "owns" the situation unfolding in Afghanistan during an exclusive interview with CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

"Of course there were more options between the two binary choices presented by the President. Just better planning and extending the timeline and taking a more thoughtful approach and not relying on simple assumptions, would have prevented this disastrous outcome that we're seeing unfolding... before us right now. It's a humanitarian crisis that I fear will grow worse in the coming days and weeks," Esper said.

Esper told Amanpour that the Afghan people deserved better leadership over the past 20 years and "to put this all on" Afghan forces is "shifting the blame".

"We saw them fight with the United States and allied support," he said.

"The fact is President Biden owns this. He owns the mess that's been created over the past couple weeks and should own up to it and really at this point, we have to remedy the situation," Esper added.

Amanpour pressed Esper on the negotiations the Trump administration started with the Taliban in 2020 and how that impacted the current situation on the ground: "This was started under your administration, the President you served. Can you take us into the conversations that were underway that even imagined that this would result in anything other than what we have seen today?"

Esper said that he ultimately agreed with the overall policy of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, but added, "Just because negotiations began under the Trump administration does not ignore the fact that, again, President Biden owns this situation, implementation of his withdrawal that we now see unfolding before us."

Esper continued, "That said, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban in February of 2020. It was a political agreement. It was based on a premise that I, and many others inside and outside the government, shared and that was that the only way forward was going to be a political agreement. Not a military solution imposed by the United States and the Afghan government. But a political solution and the Taliban signed up to that."

That agreement included US troop reductions and the Taliban agreeing to make sure Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists. "I was very clear at the time that this agreement had to be conditions based. That both sides need to meet their ends of the agreement," Esper said.

"I thought, that despite it not being a perfect deal, or great deal, it was a good enough deal," he noted.

Esper said that he believed Trump's continued efforts to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan "undermined the agreement" and that is why he objected to Trump's push to pull troops by Christmas 2020. Esper said he believed that US forces should not go below 4,500 troops until conditions were met by the Taliban.

"That said, President Biden coming into office, he was not necessarily bound to continue the Trump plan. He was not necessarily bound to implement the political agreement. He could have taken.... a different path. He could have tried to go back to the table with the Taliban and renegotiate," Esper said.

Watch here: