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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9:26 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

UNHCR releases non-return advisory for Afghanistan in the wake of rapid security deterioration

From CNN's Celine Alkhaldi

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a non-return advisory for Afghanistan on Monday, calling for “a bar on forced returns of Afghan nationals, including asylum seekers who have had their claims rejected.”

At a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo called on States to halt forcible returns of Afghan nationals who were previously considered in no need of international protection.

“States have a legal and moral responsibility to allow those fleeing Afghanistan to seek safety, and to not forcibly return refugees,” said Mantoo.  

During the briefing, Mantoo expressed concern for women and girls, as well as those perceived to have a current or past association with the Afghan government, international organizations or with international military forces.

According to UNHCR data:

  • Some 80% of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since the end of May 2021 are women and children.
  • The UNHCR reports that more than 550,000 Afghans have been internally displaced, since the beginning of 2021.
  • Meanwhile, a total of 72,375 Afghan refugees are hosted within Afghanistan, and an overwhelming majority of 2,215,445 refugees are reported to be in Iran and Pakistan.

Afghans have seen more than four decades of displacement, constituting one of the largest protracted refugee situations in the world, with and one of the biggest displacement crises in modern history, according to the UNHCR.

Caroline Van Buren, UNHCR's representative in Afghanistan told CNN’s Robyn Curnow on Sunday that between 20,000 and 30,000 people were leaving the country on a weekly basis.

"We are now seeing a large number of people leaving Afghanistan: flights are full and these people, of course, are people who have travel documents, we are able to get visas, who have residency permits in other countries," she said.

"But now we're also seeing a trend of people who are moving in an irregular way, people who are fleeing for their own safety without travel documents and they are much at risk for exploitation," she continued.


9:50 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

The Taliban continue to solidify their grip in Afghanistan. Here are key things to know about them. 

From CNN's Julia Hollingswort

Taliban fighters drive around a market in Kabul on August 17.
Taliban fighters drive around a market in Kabul on August 17. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images)

Just last week, US intelligence analysts had predicted it would likely take several more weeks before Afghanistan's civilian government in Kabul fell to Taliban fighters. In reality, it only took a few short days.

On Sunday, Taliban militants retook Afghanistan's capital, almost two decades after they were driven from Kabul by US troops.

But who are the Taliban? Formed in 1994, the Taliban were made up of former Afghan resistance fighters, known collectively as mujahedeen, who fought the invading Soviet forces in the 1980s. They aimed to impose their interpretation of Islamic law on the country — and remove any foreign influence.

After the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, 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.

That changed after Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 men hijacked four commercial planes in the US, crashing two into the World Trade Center towers, one into the Pentagon, and another, destined for Washington, into a field in Pennsylvania. More than 2,700 people were killed in the attacks.

The attack was orchestrated by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who operated from inside of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Less than a month after the attack, US and allied forces invaded Afghanistan, aiming to stop the Taliban from providing a safe-haven to al Qaeda — and to stop al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base of operations for terrorist activities.

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.

What do the Taliban want? The Taliban have tried to present themselves as different from the past — they have claimed to be committed to the peace process, an inclusive government, and willing to maintain some rights for women. However, it remains to be seen if they will follow through and deliver on it.

Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen said women would still be allowed to continue their education from primary to higher education – a break from the rules during the Taliban's past rule between 1996 and 2001. Shaheen also said diplomats, journalists and non-profits could continue operating in the country.

"That is our commitment, to provide a secure environment and they can carry out their activities for the people of Afghanistan," he said.

But many observers worry that a return to Taliban rule is a return to the Afghanistan of two decades ago, when women's rights were severely restricted. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, said in a tweet that hundreds of thousands were being forced to flee amid reports of serious human rights violations.

Read more about the group here.

9:42 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar returning to Afghanistan, source tells CNN

From CNN's Vasco Cotovio

(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Taliban co-founder and deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is returning to Afghanistan, a Taliban source with knowledge of his movements told CNN on Tuesday.

“Mullah Baradar with a number of high-ranking Taliban officials left Doha to Kandahar province of Afghanistan,” the source said, without providing additional details.

The deputy leader and co-founder of the Taliban movement hasn’t set foot in Afghanistan in 20 years. He currently heads the Taliban’s political bureau.

In 2010 he was arrested in neighboring Pakistan by the country’s security forces and released in 2018 when the US intensified efforts to leave Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump and Baradar, who was the Taliban's chief negotiator, spoke by telephone last year, after the US and Taliban signed a historic agreement in Qatar in March 2020. Trump called it a good conversation.

"The relationship is very good that I have with the mullah," Trump said.

"They want to cease the violence, they'd like to cease violence also."

Baradar also met with China’s Foreign Minister, in Tianjin China in July.

10:25 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Lawmaker who voted against the Afghanistan war in 2001 wants Congress to check President's use of troops

From CNN's Elise Hammond

Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, who was the only member of Congress who voted against the war in Afghanistan in 2001, said the country needs to learn from its mistakes and rebalance who controls diplomacy, development and defense moving forward.

"Congress has a responsibility to debate and authorize the use of force. We don't give it to presidents just to use in perpetuity and that's what happened," she told CNN on Tuesday. "I knew then that there's no military solution in Afghanistan. You have to understand the history there and so we can't nation-build."

Lee supported President Biden's decision to withdraw troops and said no one expected the Taliban to take over the capital city of Kabul so quickly.

Now, she said it is important to use "all of our tools" to make sure every American and Afghan ally gets out safely.

"This is a very dire situation in many ways, it's an emergency," she said. "We have to use every tool we have to ensure their safety. It has to be orderly," Lee added.

"Our troops did everything we asked them to do. They accomplished their goals and their mission. Why in the world would we allow any president to keep our brave troops in harm's way for this long is mind-boggling," Lee said.

Hear what Rep. Barbara Lee said in 2001:

9:02 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Some Taliban leaders "want to see girls education," UNICEF says

From CNN’s Eleanor Pickston

Some Taliban leaders have said they “want to see girls education,” while in talks with the United Nations Children’s Fund and partner NGOs, UNICEF Chief of Field Operations Mustapha Ben Messaoud said on Tuesday.

The messages from the Taliban are “more or less the same” but with “small differences,” especially in terms of girls’ education, Messaoud told reporters during a UN press briefing.

“There are areas, parts of the country, where they told us they’re waiting for guidance from their leadership, religious and political. In other places they’re actually, they said that they want to see girls’ education and schools up and running," he continued.

Taliban officials have held talks with UNICEF and partner NGOs at a number of UNICEF regional offices in Afghanistan over the past days, according to Messaoud.

Addressing the ability for female aid workers and female Afghan staff to continue in their roles, Messaoud said the Taliban has given “mixed, measured answers” but that UNICEF is “cautiously optimistic.”

At least 11 of UNICEF’s 13 field offices in Afghanistan have remained operational since the Taliban took over the country, with the organization currently delivering in “most places,” yet there continues to be “great need” Massaoud warned. “Half of the population — more than 18 million people, including nearly 10 million children — need humanitarian assistance.”

UNICEF and aid partners are in “ongoing discussions” with the Taliban and are “quite optimistic” about the future relationship, based on discussions held at UNICEF field offices, Messaoud told the briefing. “We have not a single issue with the Taliban in those field offices.”


8:53 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

White House seeks to contain Afghanistan fallout as Biden remains out of public view today

From CNN's Jeff Zeleny 

President Joe Biden walks from the podium after speaking about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Monday, August 16.
President Joe Biden walks from the podium after speaking about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Monday, August 16. (Evan Vucci/AP)

As President Biden receives his national security briefings at Camp David this morning, including updates on evacuation efforts from Kabul, officials at the White House are trying to contain the fallout amid blistering criticism for how the administration was caught so off guard by the swift collapse of the Afghanistan government.

Never in the seven months of Biden’s presidency has the competence of the administration been so intensely questioned, with the President’s defiant and defensive speech on Monday only fueling the concerns, rather than working to allay them.

A senior White House official tells CNN today that “there is no second-guessing of the President’s strategy,” but the official acknowledged that far more had to be done to explain how the crisis escalated and the government was blindsided by the Taliban’s surge. But the official stressed the administration was focused “on looking forward, not looking back.” 

“Yes, our competence is being questioned,” the official told CNN. “The only way to fix that is to stabilize the airport and safely withdraw Americans and our partners to the best of our ability.” 

No changes are expected on the schedule of the President, who remains out of public view today. But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will take questions at an afternoon briefing at 1:30 p.m. ET.

The White House is also reaching out to allies on Capitol Hill – and beyond – to explain their efforts and try to ease their concerns.


2:54 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

EU's "top priority" remains saving lives of Afghans working for delegation

From CNN's Amy Cassidy

The European Union’s "top priority” remains rescuing Afghans working for the EU delegation and member states, the Commission’s lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Peter Stano said Tuesday.  

Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, he said: “We are working very intensively, this is the priority right now for us [...] to save people who are working for the EU delegation. The same goes for the Member States. Their priorities [are] their own citizens, and ensure the safety of the local population who were working for the diplomatic missions of individual Member States. 

“So we are engaged in this. It is an ongoing operation, it's very demanding and challenging and very sensitive operation, and of course due to the security reasons and security considerations we are not sharing any operational details about numbers, whereabouts, the status, this is the top priority right now which is… still ongoing.”

He would not go into details of timelines of evacuations, adding that EU Foreign Affairs chief Josep Borrell — who is meeting with the bloc’s foreign ministers later on Tuesday — has been in touch with his NATO counterparts including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the issue.

Responding to a question on how Afghanistan will now be classified under Taliban rule – for example as a safe, dangerous or developing country — Stano said: “Discussions are taking place at the highest levels” and “the review of all the policies and assessments is ongoing in light of the latest developments in the country.”

Asked if individuals arriving in the EU from Afghanistan in an “irregular way” should be deported, the Commission's Rule of Law spokesperson Christian Wigand said: “We are working on a comprehensive approach to address the current crisis in Afghanistan.”

He continued: “Such an approach will need to include the need to provide safe and legal pathways for vulnerable people, while addressing risks of irregular migration and ensuring the management of our borders. These elements will need to be discussed at political level in the coming days.”


2:54 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

US has resumed air operations and flown hundreds of people in and out of Kabul, Pentagon says

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby speaks during a press briefing on August 16.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby speaks during a press briefing on August 16.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After the chaos and disruptions at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday, US air operations have resumed on Tuesday, however, the military is still working to ensure that the security is sustainable, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.

Over the last 24 hours, the United States has flown in about 1,000 troops into Afghanistan, bringing the total number of troops to 3,500, he told CNN.

At the same time, 700 to 800 individuals have been flown out of Afghanistan, which includes roughly 150 Americans, Kirby said Tuesday.

Once all the troops are in, military crafts could keep flying in and out of the country, he explained.

"Just on the military craft alone, we believe we can get between 5 and 9,000 people out per day. Of course, some of that's weather dependent, obviously security dependent," he said. "That's just the military side. We want the civilian side of the airport to remain open as well, so commercial flights can and are able to get themselves in and out."

Now that the air operations have resumed, Americans present in the country can begin to move to the airport to get a flight out, Kirby said.

The Pentagon press secretary was not able to give specific numbers for how many Americans may be present in the country, looking for a flight out, or how many Afghans may be eligible for withdrawal.

However, he emphasized that the US is committed to the Afghan applicants and their families. "We know we have an obligation to them," he said.

The military's focus will remain on the airport, and Kirby said he would not want to "set the expectation that we are equipped and able to go out into the countryside and physically move people into Kabul."

8:07 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Some Afghan women journalists are reporting from the streets of Kabul while others flee for their safety

Afghan news network TOLO news has applauded the work of women journalists who are continuing to report under Taliban-rule.

Saad Mohseni, Director of Moby Media Group, TOLO's parent company, posted images of some of their journalists in action in a message on Twitter Tuesday, with the caption: “Our brave female journalists out and about in Kabul this morning."

Earlier Tuesday, a female TOLO journalist, Beheshta Arghand, interviewed senior Taliban representative Abdul Haq Hammad on air – an interview that would have been unimaginable when the militant group last ruled Afghanistan two decades ago. Then, women were barred from public life and were only allowed outside when fully covered in a burqa, and escorted by a male chaperone.

The Taliban says it has changed, promising that women will retain certain rights under their renewed leadership. But many fear a return to the dark days, with some female journalists having already left the country in the wake of the Taliban’s resurgence.

On Monday, CNN’s Clarissa Ward in Kabul reported that Afghan journalists are "absolutely petrified, particularly women journalists.” They know that they are “big targets because they have been so outspoken against the Taliban in the past,” she said.

Ward spoke with Taliban fighters on Monday who told her that female journalists would still be able to practice their profession as long as they adhered to their rules. Female journalists, he said, will be expected to wear the niqab, and should not engage with men outside of their family.

Fear running high: On Sunday the homes of two unidentified female journalists were visited by Taliban fighters, a contact of the women told CNN Monday, adding that both women were severely shaken psychologically.

Several female journalists are said to have received threatening calls from the Taliban, with the calls increasing over recent days, the source added. One prominent female journalist in Kabul said she had received a threatening call from the Taliban, telling her they “will come soon.”

An April Human Rights Watch report found that Taliban forces have deliberately targeted journalists and other media workers, including women journalists, especially those who appear on television and radio.

“Female reporters may be targeted not only for issues they cover but also for challenging perceived social norms prohibiting women from being in a public role and working outside the home,” the report said, adding that a "recent wave of violent attacks has driven several prominent women journalists to give up their profession or leave Afghanistan altogether."