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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8:19 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward boards flight out of Afghanistan

Following days of reporting from the ground in Afghanistan, CNN's Clarissa Ward boarded a flight out of the country Friday.

Ward shared a photo from the packed plane on Twitter after waiting hours for a flight.

"On our flight and getting ready for takeoff," she tweeted.

Read the tweet:

6:59 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

US military helicopters evacuated Americans from hotel near Kabul airport

From CNN's Oren Lieberman

The US military used helicopters to evacuate a group of Americans from a hotel near the Kabul airport, according to the Pentagon spokesperson who provided new details about the mission that was first revealed by President Biden in his speech on Friday.

The 169 Americans were retrieved after another country informed US commanders that citizens had gathered at the Baron Hotel near the airport, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Friday evening. 

Three CH-47 Chinook helicopters flew from the military side of the airport to the Baron Hotel, just off the southern side of the airport, to collect the Americans and bring them onto the field, Kirby said. He did not know if the Chinooks flew multiple flights to bring the Americans over.

"It was a very quick, safely performed operation," Kirby said.

The original plan had been for the Americans to walk through the Abbey Gate, located approximately 200 meters from their hotel, Kirby said. But a large crowd had gathered at the gate, and some of the Americans felt unsafe trying to work their way through the crowd.

Kirby clarified his earlier remarks that this crowd had walked onto the field with the assistance of some US troops. He said there have been a few instances of Americans arriving at the airport and being escorted onto the field by US troops. But he said this is the only instance of which he is aware where US helicopters have left the field to collect American citizens.

The Associated Press was first to report about this mission.

The decision to launch the helicopters was made by the commander on the ground "on the spot."

"He executed a mission that he believed was in the best interest of helping these Americans, and he did," Kirby said. A third country, which Kirby would not identify, had established security at the hotel and informed the US that its citizens were there.

 

5:18 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Colombia to temporarily host Afghan refugees en route to US

From CNN’s Stefano Pozzebon

Colombia has agreed to take Afghans who worked with the US government temporarily as they wait for the US to process their paperwork, Colombia's President Ivan Duque said Friday.

In a joint video statement with US Ambassador to Colombia Philip Goldberg, Duque and Goldberg both reiterated that Afghans will only stay in Colombia temporarily and will eventually move to the US.

Goldberg thanked Colombia’s efforts and said that the US will contribute to the costs incurred during this operation.

The Colombian president's office declined to answer how many refugees will move to Colombia or the timeframe of this operation.

4:43 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

American military evacuation flights from Afghanistan land at US airbase in Germany 

From CNN's Atika Shubert and Nada Bashir

The first few US military evacuation flights from Afghanistan have landed at Ramstein Air Base, a United States Air Force base in Germany, carrying approximately 350 passengers, Senior Master Sergeant Stacia Zachary told CNN Friday.

According to Zachary, the first plane landed at approximately 7 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET) – the first in a series of flights that have evacuated hundreds of people of different nationalities, including Afghan nationals. 

“We are making sure that everyone getting off the plane is getting the medical attention they need,” said Zachary, noting that medical personnel were on site to receive the first arrivals and provide health checks, as well as stabilize any medical emergencies. 

Zachary reiterated that Ramstein Air Base would be an intermediate stop with no long-term plan to accommodate arrivals. More flights are expected over the next few days.

Earlier on Friday: German Chancellor Angela Merkel told members of the press that evacuating those who have worked for Germany over the last 20 years remains a priority for the German government.

“Afghan citizens should have a safe, secure place to stay in Germany and we will do everything in our power to bring as many of these people as possible to Germany in the next few days,” she added.

According to the latest information from the German Defense Ministry, more than 1,700 “at-risk” people in Afghanistan have been evacuated on German military flights so far.

4:31 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

US Defense secretary told lawmakers that Americans have been beaten by Taliban in Kabul, sources say

From CNN's Jeremy Herb, Natasha Bertrand and Ryan Nobles 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told House members in a call this afternoon that Americans have been beaten by the Taliban in Kabul, according to multiple sources on the call.

Austin called it “unacceptable” but would not rule in or out if Americans would go outside the gates to ensure safe passage through checkpoints. Still, he added that generally the Taliban were not hindering Americans seeking to get to the airport, echoing the claims made publicly by President Biden on Sunday.

The comments appear to contradict President Biden’s statement earlier Friday that there's "no indication" US citizens have been unable to get to Kabul airport.

Politico first reported Austin’s comments.

Asked about Austin’s comments and reports of beatings, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said, “we're certainly mindful of these reports and they're deeply troubling, and we have communicated to the Taliban that that's absolutely unacceptable, that we want free passage through their checkpoints for documented Americans. And by and large, that's happening.”

4:24 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

"It wasn't a rescue" says Pentagon of the 169 Americans brought to the airfield by US troops

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby today provided few details on how US troops brought 169 Americans to the Hamid Karzai International Airport, but characterized the activity as "assistance" rather than a rescue mission.

"My understanding of what happened was they were really just outside the wall," he told CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

"It wasn't a rescue so much as assisting them getting onto the field," continued Kirby, speaking from the Pentagon.

When pressed by Starr, Kirby repeatedly said that he did not have details on US operations outside the airport, which is secured by the US military.

"I don't have that level of detail," said Kirby. "...I do not have that level of tactical detail today. I'm happy to go look and see if we can find answers for you on that."

President Biden, in a press conference earlier this afternoon, said US troops had gone "over the wall" to bring 169 Americans to the airfield. 

Kirby said beyond "assistance" to the 169 Americans, he was not aware of any other instances in which US soldiers had left the airport. He said the US had increased its capacity to operate outside of the wire, however, which stands in contrast to remarks made earlier in the week by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who said they did not have the capacity to go out and get “large numbers of people.”

Speaking at the Pentagon today, Kirby said they had now "flown in additional capacity, additional forces."

"If there would be a need to do something additional to help Americans or other people at risk that we need to get to the airfield, we would examine those options,” Kirby said.

4:21 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

US State Department lists countries helping with relocation efforts out of Afghanistan

From Jennifer Hansler and Christian Sierra

State Department spokesperson Ned Price revealed a lengthy list of countries who are partnering in relocation efforts for Americans and Afghans from Kabul.

“Over the past several days, we have mobilized a global effort through diplomatic channels to evacuate US citizens, personnel from partner nations, and of course at risk Afghans from Kabul,” he told reporters at a briefing.

“We extend special thanks to our partners around the globe who have been instrumental in this operation in all of its many parts. Bahrain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, the UAE, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan have been or will soon be transiting Americans or in some circumstances, others, through their territories to safety,” Price added.

“Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine and Uganda have also made generous offers regarding the relocation efforts for at-risk Afghans,” he said.

4:44 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Thousands were unable to board planes during hours-long pause in US evacuation flights, Army official says

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Asked by CNN's Barbara Starr if the number of people backlogged at Kabul's airport during the "pause" of US flights was about 10,000, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, vice director for logistics of the Joint Staff, said he believed it was "less than" that figure, but that the did not have the "exact number."

Pressed in a follow-up question if the number was "in the thousands," the official agreed that it was. Taylor noted in the briefing that the "pause" of US evacuation flights lasted roughly six to seven and a half hours.

Earlier today, CNN's Clarissa Ward reported that soldiers told her about 10,000 people were processed but unable to depart Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as Qatar was reaching capacity on accepting additional Afghans.

Starr also asked Taylor about the conditions on the ground for Afghans waiting to depart the airfield.

Conditions were "sufficient," Taylor said. "We are actively continuing to ensure it is sufficient for the future and continuing as we build out even more." 

"Did the people who were stuck there for so long, did they have food, water and sanitation?" Starr asked. 

"Yes, and I have no report they didn't," he said.

After the hours-long "pause" was lifted, at least one US evacuation flight has left Kabul, Taylor added.

4:01 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Pentagon: "We know that al Qaeda is a presence" in Afghanistan

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby speaks at a briefing in Washington, DC, on August 20, 2021.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby speaks at a briefing in Washington, DC, on August 20, 2021. Pool

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby acknowledged that an al Qaeda presence remains in Afghanistan, seemingly contradicting President Biden’s declaration that the terrorist organization was no longer in that country.

“We know that al Qaeda is a presence as well as ISIS in Afghanistan and we've talked about that for quite some time,” Kirby told reporters Friday.

In remarks shortly beforehand defending the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden said, “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al Qaeda gone?”

Kirby said they do not believe the number of al Qaeda fighters in the country “is exorbitantly high but we don't have an exact figure for you,” because “our intelligence gathering ability in Afghanistan isn't what it used to be because we aren't there in the same numbers that we used to be.”

When pressed, Kirby attempted to clean up the contrast between his words and Biden's, saying, “what we believe is that there isn't a presence that is significant enough to merit a threat to our homeland as there was back on 9/11, 20 years ago.”

As part of the US-Taliban deal, the militant group said it would cut ties to al Qaeda, but UN reports have found that the two groups remain closely linked.