The latest on Afghanistan as the Taliban take charge

By Brad Lendon, Jessie Yeung, Kara Fox, Aditi Sangal, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 0027 GMT (0827 HKT) August 21, 2021
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1:53 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

NOW: Biden speaks about Afghanistan evacuations as US scrambles to find more places to fly evacuees

From CNN's Kate Sullivan, Kylie Atwood, Barbara Starr, Clarissa Ward and Jennifer Hansler

US President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on August 20, 2021.
US President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on August 20, 2021. Pool

President Biden is delivering remarks about the ongoing US military evacuations of American citizens and vulnerable Afghans as chaos ensues at and around Kabul's international airport.

The US government is examining new locations, including Europe, to relocate Afghans as it nears capacity in Qatar and scrambles to address the crush of people looking to flee Afghanistan, sources told CNN Friday. 

The capacity issue is hampering evacuation efforts: CNN’s Clarissa Ward reported Friday that no US flight had left Kabul in eight hours. A senior White House official says the the pause on US flights at Kabul will be lifted and flights are set to resume soon.

Many of the US government evacuation flights had been traveling to Qatar, they have slowed down as the Gulf nation nears capacity for sheltering people, a Qatari source said. 

Some more background: In the days since the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban, the US has scrambled to secure Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport and evacuate US citizens and vulnerable Afghans amid the extremely fluid situation on the ground.

Military and diplomatic efforts are underway to press the Taliban to ensure safe passage for those trying to reach the airport, but for now the route there is fraught with uncertainty for Afghans looking to flee, as they must first make their way through often violent and arbitrary Taliban checks.

The US Embassy in Kabul has advised Americans that it "cannot ensure safe passage to the airport," and Defense and State Department officials have said they do not have the capacity to retrieve US citizens from Kabul and bring them to the airport for evacuation flights.

CNN's Brent Swails and Kara Fox contributed reporting to this post.

1:40 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Video shows riot control agent deployed on hundreds of Afghans waiting outside US-controlled airport gate

From CNN's Jaide Garcia and Barbara Starr 

CNN has obtained video showing some form of riot control agent deployed on hundreds of Afghans waiting for evacuation outside the closed gate at the US military-controlled Camp Sullivan side of Kabul international airport. 

Hundreds of men, women and children can be seen in the video crowding together and screaming in panic as the riot control agent is seen and heard being deployed in the air around them. 

Jim Krejci, the former supervisor of three translators who received US permission for evacuation and instruction to go to the Camp Sullivan gate, sent the video to CNN Friday.  

Krejci was told by the translators that they received notification to go to Camp Sullivan at 5:20 a.m. local time on Thursday morning. They made it through two Taliban checkpoints in order to get to the US military gate, and when they arrived at 8 a.m. local time Thursday it was closed, the translators said. 

American officials said in a news conference on Thursday afternoon that the gates at Kabul airport were open for evacuees. 

According to Krejci, the three translators along with their wives and children waited all day with nearly one thousand others — many of whom were invited by the US for evacuation. They spent the night Thursday evening and had to leave the location at 1 p.m. local time Friday after the Taliban deployed riot control agent on the crowds waiting outside the gate, Krejci said. 

The entire 29 hours the families were waiting at the Camp Sullivan gate it remained closed, and there was no sign of US military personnel, they told Krejci. The only contact they had was with an Afghan soldier in the guard tower, Krejci said. 

WATCH:

1:17 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Soldiers at Kabul airport tell CNN there are about 10,000 people processed but unable to depart

From CNN’s Clarissa Ward in Kabul and

Around 10,000 people are processed but are unable to depart Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, as Qatar is reaching its capacity on accepting additional Afghans, a soldier tells CNN's Clarissa Ward.

“It’s abysmal… someone needs to step up,” the soldier said.

Ward also reported Friday that no US flight had left Kabul in an eight-hour period. A senior White House official says the the pause on US flights at Kabul will be lifted and flights are set to resume soon.

CNN reported earlier that The US government is examining new locations, including in Europe, to relocate Afghans as it nears capacity in Qatar and scrambles to address the crush of people looking to flee Afghanistan, sources said.

Many of the US government evacuation flights have been traveling to Qatar, but they have slowed down as the Gulf nation nears capacity for sheltering people, a Qatari source said. 

The US is expected to relocate Afghans to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, multiple sources told CNN, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Friday that they “have agreed with the U.S. that Ramstein Air Base in particular can be used temporarily for the transit of people seeking protection from Afghanistan to the United States.”

CNN's Kylie Atwood, Barbara Starr, Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting to this post.

1:03 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Pause on US flights in Kabul will be lifted and departures will resume soon, White House official says

From CNN's Jeff Zeleny

The pause on US flights at Kabul's airport will be lifted and flights are set to resume soon, a senior White House official says.

“There was a brief operational pause because we got so many people out yesterday there was a bit of a backup as they processed people at third party countries,” the official tells CNN. “The commander on the ground has issued the order to recommence.”

While the official described the pause as “brief,” CNN’s Clarissa Ward reported that US flights have not departed for more than eight hours.

CNN has asked the Pentagon for comment.

12:55 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

NATO foreign ministers release a statement on Afghanistan

From CNN's Nada Bashir

NATO foreign ministers released a statement on Afghanistan, calling for an "immediate end to the violence" and for "those in positions of authority" to facilitate the safe and orderly departure of people trying to leave the country.

Read their full statement below: 

“We, the Foreign Ministers of NATO, met today to discuss the difficult situation in Afghanistan.

“We are united in our deep concern about the grave events in Afghanistan and call for an immediate end to the violence. We also express deep concerns about reports of serious human rights violations and abuses across Afghanistan. We affirm our commitment to the statement by the UN Security Council on 16 August, and we call for adherence to international norms and standards on human rights and international humanitarian law in all circumstances.

“Our immediate task now is to meet our commitments to continue the safe evacuation of our citizens, partner country nationals, and at-risk Afghans, in particular those who have assisted our efforts. We call on those in positions of authority in Afghanistan to respect and facilitate their safe and orderly departure, including through Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. As long as evacuation operations continue, we will maintain our close operational coordination through Allied military means at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

“The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity, and to build on the important political, economic and social achievements they have made over the last twenty years. We stand by civil society actors who must be able to continue to safely play their meaningful role in Afghan society. We call on all parties in Afghanistan to work in good faith to establish an inclusive and representative government, including with the meaningful participation of women and minority groups. Under the current circumstances, NATO has suspended all support to the Afghan authorities. Any future Afghan government must adhere to Afghanistan’s international obligations; safeguard the human rights of all Afghans, particularly women, children, and minorities; uphold the rule of law; allow unhindered humanitarian access; and ensure that Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists.

“For the last twenty years, we have successfully denied terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to instigate attacks. We will not allow any terrorists to threaten us. We remain committed to fighting terrorism with determination, resolve, and in solidarity. 

“We honour the service and sacrifice of all who have worked tirelessly over the last twenty years to realise a better future for Afghanistan. Together, we will fully reflect on our engagement in Afghanistan and draw the necessary lessons. We will continue to promote the stable, prosperous Afghanistan that the Afghan people deserve and address the critical questions facing Afghanistan and the region, in the immediate future and beyond, including through our cooperation with regional and international partners, such as the European Union and United Nations.”

 

12:33 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

US scrambling for more places to fly evacuees from Afghanistan as Qatar nears capacity

From CNN's Kylie Atwood, Barbara Starr and Jennifer Hansler

The US government is examining new locations, including in Europe, to relocate Afghans as it nears capacity in Qatar and scrambles to address the crush of people looking to flee Afghanistan, sources told CNN Friday. 

The capacity issue is hampering evacuation efforts. No US flight has left Kabul in the last eight hours, CNN’s Clarissa Ward reported Friday.

Many of the US government evacuation flights had been traveling to Qatar, they have slowed down as the Gulf nation nears capacity for sheltering people, a Qatari source said. 

The Qataris had agreed to take in 8,000 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their family members, and they are getting close to reaching that number.

The US has evacuated not only individuals in this category, but others like P1/P2 visa applicants, which is complicating this process, according to a State Department official. The Qataris are now also taking in other evacuees – such as Americans who have final destinations – but they do not want to take in Afghans who are not already in the SIV process and have gone through some sort of security check. 

The US is expected to relocate Afghans to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, multiple sources told CNN, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Friday that they “have agreed with the U.S. that Ramstein Air Base in particular can be used temporarily for the transit of people seeking protection from Afghanistan to the United States.”

Homeland Security personnel are expected to go to Germany to assist with processing of SIV applicants and Afghan allies, according to two DHS officials.

DHS staff were asked this week to volunteer for deployments to Germany and Qatar, according to the officials.

A Homeland Security spokesperson told CNN the department has deployed personnel from CBP, ICE, and TSA to Doha, Qatar, to conduct processing, screening, and vetting, and State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Thursday that “the department is sending consular staffing teams to Qatar and Kuwait to assist with the transit effort, and we’re preparing teams to surge to other processing locations as well.”

Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Uganda have all offered to temporarily host Afghan refugees.

 

1:38 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

International community must use "maximum leverage" on new Afghan "regime," UK prime minister says 

From CNN’s Nada Bashir and Celine Al-Khaldi

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London on August 18, 2021.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London on August 18, 2021. Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The international community must come together to use the “maximum leverage” on the “new regime” in Afghanistan, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday, adding that the British government continues to work “flat out” to support evacuation efforts in Kabul.

“What the UK now needs to do is work with all our friends and partners in the international community so that we use the maximum leverage on the new regime in Kabul to do our best to ensure the people of Afghanistan, that beautiful country, have the best possible future under what are very difficult circumstances,” Johnson said in a video message shared by Downing Street. 

Speaking after meeting with some of the Afghan nationals who have been evacuated to the UK, Johnson said the British government has an “obligation” to support as many Afghan nationals as possible. 

“I am proud that we’re able to give this help to them — they’ve been of incredible use to our country as interpreters and in countless other ways over the last 20 years,” Johnson said. 

“We owe them a big debt of gratitude and obligation, so it’s right that they should come to this country,” he added. 

According to the Prime Minister, more than 2,000 Afghan nationals have so far been helped out of Afghanistan under the UK Afghan resettlement programme.  

“I can tell you that we’re working flat out at the Hamid Karzai International Airport to bring out as many more as we can, as rapidly as we can,” Johnson said.  

“We are now starting to see some good progress in getting the eligible persons out and getting the Afghan resettlement persons out as well,” he added. 

 

11:48 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Here's a look at the Kabul airport perimeter and the journey Afghans must make to get inside 

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler, Clarissa Ward, Brent Swails and Kara Fox

Chaotic scenes played out around Kabul airport again on Friday as thousands of people desperate to leave Afghanistan tried to get on one of the evacuation flights.

In the days since the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban, the United States has scrambled to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport and evacuate US citizens and vulnerable Afghans amid the extremely fluid situation on the ground.

Military and diplomatic efforts are underway to press the Taliban to ensure safe passage for those trying to reach the airport, but for now the route there is fraught with uncertainty for Afghans looking to flee, as they must first make their way through often violent and arbitrary Taliban checks.

The US Embassy in Kabul has advised Americans that it "cannot ensure safe passage to the airport," and Defense and State Department officials have said they do not have the capacity to retrieve US citizens from Kabul and bring them to the airport for evacuation flights.

Those who are able to reach the airport perimeter have reported waiting hours to enter and the US Embassy advised in a recent security alert that "due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice."

"Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open," it said.

Afghans who make it through the gates are then subjected to further scrutiny by Afghan special forces, who are facing accusations of similar brutality.

Here's a look at a map of the Kabul airport and the areas controlled by the Taliban:

11:52 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Military cargo flight, captured in photo packed with Afghans, flew even more people than originally reported

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

The US military cargo plane, whose hold filled with Afghans evacuating their country was captured in a now famous photo, flew more than 800 people on board – far more than originally confirmed by the Air Force, according to the crew who flew the mission.

The crew of a C-17 US military cargo plane flew 823 people out of Kabul on an evacuation flight on Aug. 15, the crew said in an interview Friday on CNN’s New Day. It was previously believed that the plane carried 640 people on it.

The photo of Afghans sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, packed into the hold, went viral after it was published by Defense One.

The massive number of people is a record to fly on the US Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III, a military plane that can be used to carry both cargo and passengers when needed, US Air Force spokesperson Hope Cronin said. The C-17 has been in operation for almost three decades. 

“Our 640 number was a little underestimated, we actually carried 823 out,” Technical Sergeant Justin Triola, one of the plane’s crew members, said.

A radio transmission of the crew with air traffic control highlights how extraordinary the flight was. When the pilot informed air traffic control of how many people were on board, the response was “holy hell.”

When the plane is being used to transport passengers, there are several configurations the plane’s crew can use to transport different numbers of people, ranging from 10 to 336 people at a time.

It is always at the discretion of the aircraft commander to determine what they can transport at any given time, Cronin said. 

“While there are a range of standard configurations for C-17 passenger loads, this was a dynamic situation that required a dynamic solution,” Cronin said.

The previous record of people flown on a C-17 was 670 people that were flown out by the US Air Force after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013. 

Lieutenant Colonel and C-17 Aircraft Commander Eric Kut, who authorized the mission to fly those people to safety, said they are “trained to handle that, to max perform that aircraft.”

Crew members of the C-17 that flew the 823 people to safety include Kut, Triola, Airman First Class Nicolas Baron, Captain Cory Jackson, First Lieutenant Mark Lawson, Staff Sergeant Derek Laurent and Senior Airman Richard Johnson. 

“We have women and children and people’s lives at stake, it’s not about capacity, or rules and regulations, it’s about the training and the directives that we were able to handle to make sure that we could safely and effectively get that many people out and max perform those efforts,” Kut said.

Triola said the people on board the plane were “definitely anxious to get out of the area, and we were happy to accommodate them.” 

“They were definitely excited once we were airborne,” he added.