Less than 24 hours after the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, scenes of chaotic desperation played out at Kabul’s main airport as people climbed onto the wings and sides of departing military jets and clambered up gangplanks to try to get onto the last flights out of the capital.
At least five people were reported killed after the U.S. military, which has control of the airport, opened fire. It was yet unclear on Monday if they were shot by a stray bullet or crushed in a panicked stampede.
Several people also appeared to be on the jet wings as they took off. The Washington Post analyzed video posted on social media that showed at least one person falling from the sky and landing on a rooftop as the giant aircraft ascended.
An Afghan journalist who worked with American media—and who is therefore almost assuredly in the Taliban’s sights—told The Daily Beast as gunfire echoed in the background that he and eight family members had been trying to get out of Kabul since before city fell. “There is fear and panic among everyone: men, women, children desperate to get out,” he said. “There is zero chance to do so but still people rushing to airport.”
The journalist, who The Daily Beast is not naming to protect his safety, described watching U.S. military helicopters buzz the tarmac to scare off crowds who risked being crushed by landing aircraft. Hundreds more people chased jets down the runway as massive jets filled with the lucky ones departed.
The journalist was being aided by his main publication, but said he did not feel optimistic he would make the cut. He said he saw two corpses on the tarmac, but he wasn’t sure exactly how they died.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the rounds on morning TV, repeating the Biden administration that, “This is manifestly not Saigon.” Kimberley Motley, an international human-rights lawyer who spent 13 years in Afghanistan, told The Wall Street Journal instead, “This is like Saigon on steroids.”
The Taliban, meanwhile, worked to cover up any images of women on billboards and storefronts, essentially erasing progress that had been made in the last two decades. CNN’s Clarissa Ward was interviewing Taliban fighters on the street when she was told blatantly to step to the side. “It’s because I’m a woman,” the veteran war correspondent, who has reported from the country on numerous occasions, said as she complied.
Images of evacuations and chaos filled social media. One video, showing U.S. military dogs being escorted to an awaiting jet, drew scorn from Afghan citizens who seemed to suddenly realize their place on the pecking order despite many risking their lives to help the U.S.-backed efforts.
A Taliban spokesperson told CNN that they would leave the Kabul airport under U.S. control—at least for the moment. They want to ensure that all foreigners get out of their country, they said. They likely also know that the U.S. would not hesitate to return any fire aimed at them, and even though the militant group now has a substantial military power from the spoils of war, they are no match for the American troops still on the ground.
On Monday, the Taliban’s new Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority warned airlines to avoid its airspace because the air-traffic control system had been “released to the military,” according to Reuters, even though many commercial airlines had already rerouted. It wasn’t immediately clear if the notice was a reference to the fact that the U.S. military now controls air traffic over Afghanistan while they work feverishly to evacuate foreign nationals. The Associated Press also confirmed reports that a U.S. military general met face-to-face with a Taliban commander on Sunday to negotiate a temporary non-interference arrangement while evacuations are underway.
“Kabul airspace has been released to the military. Advise transit aircraft to reroute,” the notice warned, according to Reuters. “Any transit through Kabul airspace will be uncontrolled. Surrounding FIRs (air-traffic control regions) have been advised.”
A senior official in Afghanistan’s now-defunct government told The Daily Beast that he was frustrated by the international community’s response and its near total abandonment. “The fall of Kabul dishonors the sacrifice of over 150,000 Afghan lives, over 3,000 of NATO soldiers’ lives, 20 years of reconstruction efforts and over a trillion U.S. dollars,” he said. “It is the beginning of hopelessness and bottomless uncertainty for the long suffering Afghans. May Allah protect us because all the worldly superpowers came, killed us, failed and left us in lurch.”