Taliban agreed to allow ‘safe passage’ to airport, US says

The Taliban has told the US administration that it will allow a “safe passage” to the airport in Kabul, which remains under the control of American forces, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday.

Sullivan confirmed that the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) is now operational, and flights evacuating Americans and Afghan civilians are under way after a pause on the operation on Monday following chaotic scenes of people looking to flee the country.

“The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide a safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment,” he said.

Despite earlier reports that the Taliban was blocking routes to the airport, Sullivan said those looking to leave have largely been able to make it to HKIA.

“By and large, what we have found is that people have been able to get to the airport,” Sullivan told reporters. “In fact, very large numbers of people have been able to get to the airport and present themselves.

“There have been instances where we have received reports of people being turned away or pushed back or even beaten; we are taking that up in a channel with the Taliban to try to resolve those issues.”

‘Civil war’

Repeatedly referring to the conflict as a “civil war”, Sullivan mounted a defence of President Joe Biden’s decision to pull US troops from Afghanistan.

He said the 2,500 US troops remaining in the country by Biden’s inauguration in January could not have prevented a Taliban takeover.

“There are those who argue that with 2,500 forces – the number of forces in the country when President Biden took office – we could have sustained a stable, peaceful Afghanistan; that is simply wrong,” he said.

“The previous administration drew down from 15,000 troops to 2,500 troops, and even at 15,000, the Afghan government forces were losing ground.”

Sullivan stressed that Washington’s choice was not between helping the Afghan government or refusing to aid it, but between withdrawing forces or sending thousands more to remain engaged in the conflict.

“What has unfolded over the past month has proven decisively that it would have taken a significant American troop presence, multiple times greater than what President Biden was handed, to stop a Taliban onslaught,” he said.

“And we would have taken casualties, American men and women would have been fighting and dying once again in Afghanistan.”

Despite growing criticism in Washington, Biden stood by and defended the US withdrawal on Monday.

“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces,” he said in a televised address from the White House on Monday.

The US led an international coalition that invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. The Taliban, which had risen to power in the mid-1990s, had been harbouring the leader of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden.

President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Monday, August 16, 2021, in Washington, DC [Evan Vucci/AP]

US and allied forces swept the country with relative ease in 2001, but struggled to decisively defeat a guerrilla-style warfare campaign by the Taliban during the following two decades. Washington was the main political, military and financial backer of the Afghan government during that period.

The former administration of President Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban last year that would ensure US withdrawal and prevent “the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups or individuals against the security of the United States and its allies”.

Sullivan: ‘Premature’ to judge Taliban gov’t

Earlier on Tuesday, the Taliban – which returned triumphant to Kabul on Sunday with barely any resistance from the Afghan government – said it was seeking peace and issued what it called “amnesty” for Afghans who worked with the US and the government.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said at a news conference that the rights of women will be respected in accordance with Islamic law, encouraging women to join the government.

“Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,” Mujahid said in a message to Afghans, adding that the group does not want “internal or external enemies.”

In Washington, Sullivan said it was “premature” to judge whether the Taliban will remain true to its promises.

“Ultimately it’s going to be up to the Taliban to show the rest of the world who they are and how they intend to proceed,” he said. “The track record has not been good.”