By AHMAD SEIR, TAMEEM AKHGAR, KATHY GANNON and JON GAMBRELL
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Thousands of Afghans rushed into Kabul’s main airport on Monday, some so desperate to escape the Taliban that they got stuck in a military plane when it took off and crashed to death. At least seven people died in the chaos, U.S. officials said as America’s longest war ended with the enemy victor.
Crowds came as the Taliban enforced their dominance over the capital of 5 million people after lightning strikes across the country that took just over a week to blow up the country’s Western-backed government. There were no major reports of assaults or fighting, but many residents stayed home and remained horrific after the rebels’ takeover saw prisons emptied and weapons looted.
A resolute US President Joe Biden said he was “completely behind” his decision to withdraw US forces and acknowledged the “intrusive” images unfolding in Kabul. Biden said he was faced with a choice between respecting a previously negotiated withdrawal agreement or sending thousands of more troops back to begin a third decade of war.
“After 20 years, I have learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw American forces,” Biden said in a White House televised speech.
The president said U.S. troops should not fight and die in a war “as Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.” He warned the Taliban not to interfere in the evacuation effort.
Throughout Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross said thousands had been injured in the fighting. Security forces and politicians handed over their provinces and bases without a fight and probably believed that the two-decade experiment to re-establish Afghanistan would not survive the resurgent Taliban. The last U.S. troops had planned to withdraw by the end of the month.
“The world is following the events in Afghanistan with a heavy heart and deep concern over what awaits,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
As the U.S. military and others continued evacuation flights, Afghans swarmed across the asphalt of the international airport. Some climbed into planes parked on the taxiway, while others dangled unsafely from a jet bridge.
U.S. troops took up positions to guard the active runway, but the crowd stormed past them and their armored vehicles. Shots fired. As a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III attempted to take off, a helicopter made low runs in front of it to try to drive people off the runway.
Videos showed a group of Afghans hanging on the plane just before takeoff and several fell through the air as the plane quickly rose above the city.
Senior U.S. military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing operation, told the Associated Press that the chaos left seven dead, several of whom fell from the flight. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said U.S. forces killed two people he described as carrying weapons in the melee. He said 1,000 more U.S. troops would be deployed to secure the airfield and back up the 2,500 already there.
All flights at the airport – both military and civilian – were halted until Afghan civilians could be cleared from the runway, Kirby added.
Late Monday night, hundreds of people remained trapped between U.S. forces trying to push them out of the airport and Taliban forces trying to keep them inside, witnesses said. An Associated Press journalist also saw what appeared to be an air strike on two vehicles near the airport.
Earlier, more than 300 people were evacuated aboard a Turkish Airlines flight after Turkish soldiers cleared the runway. Senol Celik, who identified himself as a Turkish embassy official, said people “threw themselves in front of the plane.”
“They wanted to board the plane. They wanted to flee Afghanistan, “he said. “We were afraid that the plane would return and that we would get into that chaos. We were sad about those people. ”
Shafi Arifi, who had a ticket to travel to Uzbekistan on Sunday, was unable to board his plane because it was filled with people running across the asphalt and climbing aboard, with no police or airport staff in sight.
“There was no room for us to stand,” the 24-year-old said. “Children cried, women shouted, young and old men were so angry and sad that no one could hear each other. There was no oxygen to breathe. ”
After a woman fainted and was carried by the plane, Arifi gave up and returned home.
Other Afghans, such as Rakhmatula Kuyash, are also trying to leave land border crossings, all of which are now controlled by the Taliban.
“I am lost and I do not know what to do,” said Kuyash, who crossed into Uzbekistan on Sunday after leaving his children and relatives in Afghanistan. “I left everything.”
Others were not so lucky. Uzbekistan’s air defenses shot down an Afghan military plane trying to enter the country without permission. The two pilots were reportedly wounded and remanded in custody.
Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani, who previously left the country, faced Russian allegations that he fled Kabul with four cars and a helicopter full of cash. His whereabouts remained unclear.
The U.S. embassy has been evacuated and the U.S. flag lowered, with diplomats moving to the airport to help with the evacuation. Other Western countries also shut down their missions and flew staff and their citizens out.
In interviews with US television networks, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan blamed the Afghan military for the Taliban’s swift takeover, saying it lacked the will to fight.
The Taliban offensive stunned US officials. Just days before the rebels entered Kabul with little or no resistance, a U.S. military assessment predicted it could take months before the capital fell.
The route threatened to erase 20 years of Western efforts to re-establish Afghanistan, in which tens of thousands of Afghans were killed as well as more than 3,500 US and allied troops. The first invasion in 2001 drove the Taliban from power and dispersed al-Qaeda, which had planned the 9/11 attacks while sheltered in Afghanistan.
Under the Taliban, which ruled in accordance with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, women were largely confined to their homes, and suspected criminals faced amputation or public execution. The rebels have sought to project greater moderation in recent years, but many Afghans are still skeptical.
Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, separately described interactions with the Taliban as “relatively positive.”
On Monday, Nillan, a 27-year-old resident of Kabul who only asked to be identified by her first name for fear of reprisals, said she did not see a single woman out on the streets during a 15-minute drive, “only men and boys. ”
“It feels like time has stopped. Everything has changed, ”she told the AP.
She added: “It feels like our lives and our future are over.”
Akhgar reported from Istanbul, Gannon from Guelph, Canada and Gambrell from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press authors Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem, Rahim Faiez in Istanbul, Edith M. Lederer at the UN, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Samya Kullab in Baghdad, Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Robert Burns in Washington, James LaPorta in Boca Raton, Florida, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.