WASHINGTON – Thousands of Afghans desperate to flee their besieged country poured onto the runways at Kabul’s international airport on Monday and swarmed a departing U.S. military jet in a horrific tableau that President Joe Biden described as “gut-wrenching” even as he defended his decision to withdraw American forces.
At least seven people died in the mayhem as Afghanistan plunged deeper into chaos one day after the government swiftly collapsed.
Senior U.S. military officials said the dead included some who fell from a U.S. military transport jet as it departed Hamid Karzai International Airport. Video footage showed people clinging to the sides of a military plane as it taxied.
U.S. troops killed two people, both of them armed, during the airport pandemonium, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. The troops had been fired on, Kirby said, adding there may be one servicemember wounded but reports are incomplete.
There was no indication the individuals killed were members of the Taliban, the Islamic militant group whose swift takeover of the country amid the withdrawal of American forces stunned U.S. officials.
See:Visual story: Kabul’s airport chaos and the Taliban advance, explained with maps and graphics
Biden addresses nation
In Washington, Biden said in an address to the nation that the events “sadly proved” that no amount of military force would stabilize Afghanistan.
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said after returning to the White House from Camp David.
Biden has faced harsh criticism over his strategy for winding down the nearly 20-year-old war in Afghanistan, which started with a U.S. invasion after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington
Biden, however, said that while the U.S. had given the Afghans every chance to determine their own future, “we could not provide them with the will to fight for that future.”
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” he added.
More:What President Joe Biden said in his address on Afghanistan
US troops try to secure civilian side of airport
U.S. troops sought to control the bedlam at the airport, which started when huge crowds of Afghans rushed through the civilian side of the facility, flooded the military landing strip and swarmed a U.S. Air Force C-17 as it taxied on a runway.
About 2,500 troops were positioned at the airport and another 500 will arrive by Tuesday, Kirby said. In all, about 6,000 American forces will be at the airport.
One of America’s top military commanders met face-to-face with senior leaders of the Taliban, urging the longtime enemy not to interfere with the evacuation at the airport as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan after a nearly 20-year war, a U.S. official told The Associated Press.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, warned Taliban officials that the U.S. military would respond forcefully to defend the airport if necessary, a U.S. official said separately, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks not yet announced publicly.
U.S. troops were trying to set up barriers to separate the military portion of Hamid Karzai International Airport from the civilian terminal and its landing strip, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to comment publicly.
The airport had no physical barrier between those operations. U.S. forces were erecting barriers with concertina wire to secure the military side of the airport, the official said. An additional 3,000 troops were expected to arrive in Kabul in the next few days to help.
U.S., Turkish and other allied troops were clearing the field to allow flights to resume, Kirby said. Crowds of Afghans remained on the south side of the airport where civilian flights arrive and depart.
Airport chaos:Panicked people at Kabul airport cling to plane taking off as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan
Afghan people climb atop a plane at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee the Taliban’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule.
Jonathan Finer, deputy White House national security adviser, speaking on MSNBC early Monday, confirmed additional U.S. troops would be sent to the airport.
“Absolutely there’s a plan to secure the airport,” Finer said. “That’s why we’ve been able to flow additional forces into Afghanistan without having to fight their way in. There has been contingency planning going on now for a period of month.”
Security unraveled at the international airport in Kabul so quickly because plans had included Afghan security forces maintaining some control over the civilian side of airport.
When those forces dissolved over the weekend, according to a U.S. official, civilians were able to rush through checkpoints and onto the tarmac. Panicked Afghans seeking to flee the advancing Taliban flowed from the southern part of the airport and swarmed to the north where the only barrier to the military side of the airport was distance.
The Pentagon had plentiful firepower, Apache attack helicopters and warplanes overhead, but those proved useless for crowd control, said the official who was not authorized to comment publicly. The hybrid approach between enhanced perimeter security at the airport and a wartime seizure of the airfield broke down, the official said.
The U.S. troops who were at the airport are trained to use force on people who threaten them, but apart from two incidents in which they were fired upon, the crowds did not pose imminent danger to the troops.
Additional U.S. forces continue to arrive at the airport and it is believed that the contingent of 6,000 troops will be able to control the grounds and allow evacuation flights to resume, the official said.
The international airport in Kabul has reopened and a C-17 filled with Marines has landed, according to the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is looking for two military bases in the United States to house evacuated Afghans, Kirby said. Fort Lee in Virginia has received some refugees already. As many as 22,000 Afghans may be housed at those bases.
More:Fort McCoy preparing to receive refugees from Afghanistan as they flee the fall of their country’s government
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Despite the chaotic scene at the airport, a tense calm settled over other parts of Kabul.
Most people hid in their homes as the Taliban deployed fighters at major intersections. There were scattered reports of looting and armed men knocking on doors and gates, and there was less traffic than usual on eerily quiet streets. Fighters could be seen searching vehicles at one of the city’s main squares.
The U.S. Embassy has been evacuated and the American flag lowered, with diplomats relocating to the airport to aid with the evacuation. Other Western countries also have closed their missions and are flying out staff and nationals.
Biden: Kabul fell more quickly than expected
The Taliban’s surprisingly swift rout of Afghan security forces and fall of the government on Sunday – including the flight of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani from the country – drew comparisons to the U.S. abandonment of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
More:’I stand squarely behind my decision’: Biden defends handling of Afghanistan as Taliban forces seize Kabul
Read for yourself:What President Joe Biden said in his address on Afghanistan
But Biden said the Taliban’s swift seizure of Kabul unfolded “more quickly than we anticipated.”
Biden spent the weekend at Camp David, where he had been out of sight save for an image of him participating in a videoconference that was released Sunday by the White House. He returned to the White House on Monday amid calls for him to address the unfolding crisis. He went back to Camp David after delivering his remarks.
Robert Gibbs, who was White House press secretary during the Obama administration, called it imperative that Biden speak to the nation and the world.
Taliban fighters stand guard in the main gate leading to Afghan presidential palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. The U.S. military struggled to manage a chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan on Monday as the Taliban patrolled the capital and tried to project calm after toppling the Western-backed government.
“Hopefully this happens very soon,” Gibbs tweeted Monday morning. “He must lay out again the reasoning behind his decisions, how he sees the future of this region & what must be done to prevent another safe haven for al-Qaeda to plan attacks.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., put it more bluntly.
“Mr. President,” McCarthy tweeted, “do your job and address the nation.”