August 15, 2021, Afghanistan-Taliban news

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Maureen Chowdhury, Brad Lendon and Joshua Berlinger, CNN

Updated 0401 GMT (1201 HKT) August 16, 2021
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12:09 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

US Embassy instructs Americans in Kabul to shelter in place

From CNN's Jenny Hansler

The US Embassy in Kabul – which is now operating out of the Kabul airport – instructed US citizens in the capital to shelter in place Sunday.

“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place,” the security alert issued Sunday said.

The embassy said that Americans “wanting assistance in departing the country should register for any option that might be identified to return to the United States,” and must complete an online form for each person.

“Spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens in Afghanistan who are awaiting immigrant visas should also complete this form if they wish to depart,” the embassy said. “Please do so as soon as possible. You must complete this form even if you’ve previously submitted your information to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul," it said.

“Do not call the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for details or updates about the flight. This form is the only way to communicate interest in flight options,” the security alert emphasized.

12:12 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

"People are bracing themselves for the worst," CNN's Clarissa Ward says as the Taliban enter Kabul

From CNN's Clarissa Ward in Kabul

CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward on August 15, 2021.
CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward on August 15, 2021. CNN

"Things are getting very, very quiet on the streets," CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward told Brian Stelter as the Taliban entered the capital Kabul. 

"That may be because the Taliban spokesperson actually announced that people should stay in their homes. He urged everyone not to go out, saying that that would only contribute to a sense of chaos, that the Taliban is trying to keep this as peaceful as possible. And as far as we can hear, people are certainly adhering to that advice, staying at home, staying hunkered down," she said.

But Ward described the sense of fear and panic on the streets saying, "People for the moment are bracing themselves for the worst. What tomorrow will bring, what the future will look like."

She explained the sense of chaos as the president had fled the country with no transitional government in place.

"The Taliban says they will now begin assuming responsibility for key ministries. Only tomorrow I suppose will we really get a sense of what that is going to look like, what a fall in Kabul will look like with the Taliban in full control," Ward added.

 

12:41 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

US lawmakers press for answers on Afghan drawdown during briefing with Biden officials 

From CNN's Melanie Zanona and Lauren Fox

In a virtual briefing with members of Congress this morning with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, they were pressed by lawmakers about the rapid timeline of the drawdown in Afghanistan amidst the news that Taliban fighters have entered Kabul. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pushed officials on why the process happened so quickly, saying “We didn’t give them air cover. You say you had this plan. No one would plan out this outcome. The ramifications of this for America will go on for decades and it won’t just be in Afghanistan,” according to a GOP source on the call.

But a Democratic source on the call said Austin defended the administration’s actions as an extension of the timeline for withdrawal initially laid out during the Trump administration.

Austin also said the US maintains the capacity to do air strikes to respond to any Taliban actions that interfere with evacuation.

Milley said the evacuation was a “highly dynamic and very risky operation” and also called it a “deliberate and controlled evacuation.”

Austin said the security situation rapidly deteriorated across the country, with Taliban controlling the majority of the territory. The Taliban faced very little resistance from Afghan forces.

“We will defend ourselves and our people and any attack on an American will be met with strong and immediate response,” Austin said.

Austin also said they want to keep Kabul airport open and secure. They had a contingency plan in place, which is why they were able to respond so rapidly to the rapidly deteriorating situation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked about the status of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani; officials refused to say where he is because it wasn’t a secure line.

Some more background: The call largely walked members of Congress through the strategy for removals from the country and specifically the capital with the secretaries saying that the following groups would be prioritized. Officials did not have any answers for who interpreters and other Afghanis could actually call to leave.

Blinken said the DOD is deploying aircraft to move more people out and will be brought directly to DOD places in the US. They are still having conversations with third countries, and nothing is finalized. They are prioritizing US citizens and local staffs and Afghan SIV holders and applicants; P1 and P2 folks; and women advocates. Embassy staff (non combatants), local employed staff, SIV, qualifying refugees and other third country staff under agreements that the US has with those embassies would also be prioritized.

A Democratic member on the call tells CNN that diplomatic efforts to find third countries for Afghans for processing is still underway, and a number of offers have been put out there, but nothing has been finalized yet. Officials made clear it is still a priority. Officials also said as of now Kabul airport is still open to charter and commercial flights

12:03 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

American flag is down at US Embassy in Kabul

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

The American flag at the US embassy in Kabul has been taken down, marking a final step in the evacuation of the embassy, according to a source familiar with the situation.

The withdrawal of US embassy personnel from Afghanistan is happening incredibly rapidly today and the process is now expected to conclude by this evening, minus the small number of diplomats who will stay at the Kabul airport for now, the source said.

Right now there are still a few security contractors at the embassy but they will leave soon, explained a second source familiar with the situation.

In recent days the State Department was taking steps that looked like they were heading in the direction of a full withdrawal, but State Department spokesperson Ned Price claimed it was not true when asked. Price said on Thursday that the US drawdown of diplomats was not an evacuation. Now, three days later, the evacuation is on the verge of being complete.

"This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not the wholesale withdrawal. What this is (is) a reduction in the size of our civilian footprint," Price said during the department briefing. "The embassy remains open and we plan to continue our diplomatic work in Afghanistan."

12:14 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Afghan journalists are "petrified" and have targets on their backs, CNN's Clarissa Ward reports

From CNN's Clarissa Ward in Kabul

CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward on August 15, 2021.
CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward on August 15, 2021. CNN

Afghan journalists are "absolutely petrified, particularly women journalists" as the Taliban enters Kabul and gains ground across the country, CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward reports.

"There are so many of them across the country, and they've been doing bold and incredible reporting for many years. And now there is a very real fear that they might face retaliations for that or that, certainly, they won't be able to do their work anymore," Ward told CNN's Brian Stelter.

In the capital city, a majority of news organizations are "hunkered down" and waiting to see what's going to happen, Ward said.

"Some of these journalists and reporters know that they have a big 'X' on their backs, that they're big targets because they have been so outspoken against the Taliban in the past. And while the Taliban is trying to adopt this much more mature tone and pragmatic tone in saying that they are not going to hurt anybody, that they want things to be peaceful, that there will be no retaliation, there is also the reality on the ground that when you have a bunch of fighters roaming around, things can very quickly get out of control," she said.

Watch CNN's Clarissa Ward report from Kabul:

11:54 a.m. ET, August 15, 2021

US military considering the need for additional forces in Afghanistan

From CNN's Barbara Starr and Oren Liebermann

The US military is considering the possibility of sending additional US forces to Afghanistan, a defense official and US official familiar with the ongoing discussions said. Both officials caution no decision has been made.  

Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, arrived in the Persian Gulf region Sunday to directly oversee the situation in Afghanistan, according to the defense official. The official declined to publicly name McKenzie's location but said he is not in Afghanistan.

In the coming hours, a military team is expected to arrive and set up its own air traffic control system at the airport in Kabul in order to increase the number of evacuation flights out of the airfield. This type of capability is routinely maintained by the Air Force so it can operate at airfields in remote or war zone environments.

“We are going to ramp up flights” the defense official said.

The official also said the “current plan” is that as long as any US diplomats maintain a presence at the airport, there will be a contingent there of US forces to protect them. But the official acknowledged that if the Taliban are essentially in charge then that “reality” of keeping diplomats and troops at the airport may not hold.

The defense official also said “the current situation is going south pretty fast” and in his folks view from the outset “there was no assessment pessimistic enough.”

On Saturday, President Joe Biden authorized an additional 1,000 troops to be deployed to Afghanistan to assist in the "orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance." The bulk of troops are expected in Kabul by the end of the weekend.

11:52 a.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Taliban says they entered Kabul because Afghan security forces abandoned their posts

From CNN's Artemis Moshtaghian

Taliban fighters entered Kabul on Sunday, despite saying earlier they would remain outside the city until there was an agreement with government officials, because Afghan security forces had deserted their posts in parts of the city, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement on Sunday. 

Read the translation of the Taliban's statement below:

"This morning the Islamic Emirate released a statement that our forces were outside Kabul city and we did not want to enter Kabul through military ways. 
However, now we are getting reports that the district police offices are evacuated, police has left their job of ensuring the security, also the ministries are emptied and the security personnel of the Kabul administration has fled. Therefore, in order to avoid any looting and burglary in Kabul and stop opportunists from harming the people, the Islamic Emirate has advised its forces to enter those areas of the city where the enemy has left and the areas are at risk of looting and burglary. 
The residents of the city should not feel any fear from the Mujahideen. Our forces are quietly entering the city, they won’t bother anyone, government employees both civilian and military should be assured that no one will harm them, no Mujahid is allowed to enter people’s houses, or hurt or bother anyone."
11:41 a.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Women's rights activist "surprised" at collapse of government and worries for the future

Mahbouba Seraj, women's rights activist, on August 15, 2021.
Mahbouba Seraj, women's rights activist, on August 15, 2021. CNN

The rapid gains across Afghanistan by Taliban militants have stunned observers both at home and abroad. Mahbouba Seraj from the Afghan Women's Network told CNN she was "surprised" by how quickly the government collapsed. 

"In a matter of two days, four provinces of Afghanistan going into the hands of Taliban. And I was wondering what on earth could be doing that?" Seraj said. "But then again, at the same time, because of the way this country has become in the corruption, the way it is in the world, and in Afghanistan today, I knew we were sold out." 

After years in exile, Seraj – who was born in Kabul – returned to her homeland in 2003 to work with women and children. She says her goal was not to turn women into government officials but to help those that needed help the most. She spent years traveling around the country talking to women about their rights, education and healthcare.

"I came to Afghanistan to be the voice of the voiceless women of my country, all of those women that are living in the provinces of Afghanistan, all the way back in the districts, and nobody hears the voices, and they are in dire need of help, they are poor. They are not educated. The children are dying because they're sick and ... there was such a mother and child mortality rates in Afghanistan so high, so I came for that."

She said that despite seeing the Taliban return to Kabul, she wants to continue her work and is choosing to remain in the country because "my duty is my responsibility."

"I want to do it for my girls, for my sisters and for my daughters ... but at the same time, I just want to be here because I know my presence really gives them the kind of normal, and the kind of support that they really need in this very hard times," she added.

11:21 a.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Taliban entered "peacefully" into Kabul

From CNN's Nick Paton Walsh in Kabul

The Taliban entered Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, "peacefully," CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reported from the ground.

"We are hearing crackles of gunfire here and there, but there are not reports of... street-to-street fighting or Afghan security forces amassing in specific areas in order to prevent their entry. As far as we are aware, and it is dark here, so we are not able to go around and witness these events, they are moving gently across the city," Paton Walsh told CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

He added that it is unprecedented times, "Partly, because nobody imagined the Taliban would enter into the city of six million unimpeded," and because the Afghan President "said that he essentially wanted to stick around and has now disappeared without a transitional government in potentially to take over."