Afghanistan updates: Protests consume Kabul, Taliban fighters respond with force

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — Chaos has enveloped Kabul after Afghanistan’s government’s collapsed and the Taliban seized control, all but ending America’s 20-year campaign as it began: under Taliban rule.

As the crisis intensifies, with images from Kabul showing Afghans storming the airport tarmac and climbing onto military planes after the U.S. assumed control of the airport, President Joe Biden briefly left Camp David to address the nation from the White House on Monday.

Biden returned to Washington on Wednesday and sat down with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos for an exclusive one-on-one interview at the White House, the president’s first interview since the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Pentagon said that 6,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to the country’s capital as the military races to evacuate people from an increasingly chaotic Kabul. Despite criticism, the Biden administration is sticking by its decision to withdraw troops from the country, though he told Stephanopoulos the stay might extend beyond the original Aug. 31 date if it takes longer to get all Americans out of the country.

Here are some key developments. All times Eastern:

Aug 19, 9:57 am
Protests consume Kabul, Taliban fighters respond with force

Hundreds of people took to the streets of Kabul on Thursday as Afghanistan’s annual Independence Day is met with new Taliban control of the country.

Taliban fighters cracked down on the crowds with batons and fired gunshots into the air as Afghan civilians, women included, flew the Afghanistan national flag in an apparent acts of defiance.

The U.S. military said Wednesday its focus will remain on maintaining the perimeter at the airport, as opposed to sending envoys into Kabul to pick up Americans and Afghan civilians who may have difficulty getting to the airport.

“I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a Pentagon briefing at which officials also said “nothing” could predict the collapse of the Afghanistan government in 11 days

As the race to evacuate as many as 11,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans from the country continues, the State Department on Wednesday sent an email alert to Americans in Afghanistan directing them to go to the airport but adding the U.S. “cannot provide safe passage” there.

After sitting down with an exclusive one-on-one interview with George Stephanopoulos, Biden on Thursday has no public events on his schedule but is meeting with his national security team.

Since Saturday, the U.S. has evacuated nearly 6,000 people, according to the White House — so far, falling short of the Pentagon’s goal of evacuating 6,000 to 9,000 individuals a day.

Aug 19, 8:55 am
Biden doubles down on Afghanistan amid struggling evacuation effort

Amid intense backlash on the handling of the troop withdrawal and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the president argued that the commotion of the past few days was inevitable.

“The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview.

Biden indicated an investigation of the intelligence surrounding the topic would take place, but stopped short of saying that the intelligence was wrong. Biden also denied reports that top military advisers warned against his withdrawal timeline.

Biden’s defense of his administration’s actions come as significant numbers of Americans and Afghan civilian personnel struggle to access the Kabul airport and escape the war-torn nation.

“We’re going to do everything we can to continue to try to deconflict and create passageways for them to get to the airfield. I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul,” Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin said to reporters Wednesday.

Much about the progress on evacuation efforts remains murky. In his interview with ABC News, Biden was certain that Americans in Afghanistan and American military members would be taken out of the country but seemed noncommittal on how many Afghan allies the U.S. would be able to rescue. Another unknown is if evacuations can realistically be completed before the Aug. 31 deadline. Biden offered a caveat that is unlikely to comfort those on the ground pleading to evacuate.

“It depends on where we are and whether we can get — ramp these numbers up to five to 7,000 a day coming out,” Biden said. “If that’s the case, they’ll all be out.”

Aug 18, 9:22 pm
US troops will stay until all Americans are out of Afghanistan, even if past Aug. 31 deadline: Biden

In an exclusive interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, President Joe Biden said the U.S. is committed to getting every American out of Afghanistan — even if it means potentially extending the mission beyond his Aug. 31 deadline for a total withdrawal.

“We’ve got like 10 to 15,000 Americans in the country right now. Right? And are you committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out is out?” Stephanopoulos asked Biden.

“Yes,” Biden replied.

The president cautioned that his focus is on completing the mission by Aug. 31, but when pressed by Stephanopoulos, conceded the mission could take longer.

Aug 18, 7:16 pm
Congressional leaders calling for briefings

Top Republican Leaders Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell are calling on the Biden administration for a “Gang of Eight” classified briefing on Afghanistan.

The so-called “Gang of Eight” includes the top House and Senate leaders, including the heads of the intel committees in both the House and Senate.

Separately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also requested three briefings on Afghanistan in the coming days, according to a source. They include a briefing by phone Friday for all members, a classified, in-person briefing Tuesday and a similar “Gang of Eight” briefing.

-ABC News’ Mariam Khan

Aug 18, 2:14 pm
State Department alerts Americans it ‘cannot ensure safe passage’ to airport

The State Department has directed American citizens to the airport in Kabul for departing evacuation flights — but with a stark warning.

“The United States government cannot ensure safe passage to the Hamid Karzai International Airport,” the agency said in an alert to American citizens still in Afghanistan.

“The security situation in Kabul continues to change quickly, including at the airport,” the agency added.

As many as 11,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans are still desperately trying to leave the country, ABC News Senior Foreign Correspondent Ian Pannell has reported.

Aug 18, 1:44 pm
Biden, Harris briefed by top Pentagon officials

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby confirmed to reporters that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris received a briefing on Afghanistan at the White House on Wednesday.

The White House said the group, which also included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie and CIA Director William Burns, discussed “efforts to accelerate evacuations” and “to facilitate safe passage to HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport].”

The readout from the White House also said the group discussed “monitoring for any potential terrorist threats in Afghanistan.”

-ABC News’ Sarah Kolinovsky

Aug 18, 1:30 pm
Senior intel official: Afghan government ‘unraveled even more quickly than we anticipated’

A senior U.S. intelligence official acknowledged to ABC News that the “rapid collapse” of the Afghanistan government “unraveled even more quickly” than U.S. intelligence officials had anticipated.

“We consistently identified the risk of a rapid collapse of the Afghan government. We also grew more pessimistic about the government’s survival as the fighting season progressed. This was less an issue of Afghan military capabilities and more a reflection of Afghan leadership, cohesion and willpower,” the official told ABC News. “That said, the Afghan government unraveled even more quickly than we anticipated.”

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and his family fled Kabul on Sunday as the Taliban moved closer to the presidential palace and then claimed the formation of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

-ABC News’ Cindy Smith

Aug 18, 1:09 pm
Pentagon responds to distressing scenes outside airport in Kabul

Ahead of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley holding a briefing at 3 p.m., Pentagon press secretary John Kirby spoke to reporters on Wednesday about the distressing scenes outside the airport in Kabul.

He said U.S. military officials were aware of reports that Taliban fighters are not letting Afghans through to the airport and that’s one reason the top American commander in Kabul,  Adm. Peter Vasely, has reached out to his Taliban counterpart.

Asked what more can be done to ensure safe passage of Afghans to the airport, Kirby said only that the Pentagon is working “very hard” on the issue.

“I don’t have a specific next step for you,” he said. “We are in communication with the Taliban. We want to see this process go more smoothly.”

Kirby also confirmed incidents overnight in which some American troops providing security at the perimeter of the airport fired their weapons in the air as part of “crowd control measures.”

He said the U.S. goal to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 individuals a day can be accomplished “when we’re at full throttle.”

Aug 18, 11:51 am
One Afghan family’s harrowing account of getting to Kabul’s airport

“Khan,” a computer scientist who worked with a U.S. contractor on the mission in Afghanistan and whose name is being withheld to protect his identity, boarded a U.S. military aircraft on Wednesday with his 3-year-old son and wife, who is 35 weeks pregnant, according to his lawyer.

It was their third attempt to reach the Kabul airport after they picked up their Special Immigrant Visas on Saturday, hours before the U.S. embassy shuttered.

The chaos on Sunday kept them away, and on Tuesday, there were too many Taliban fighters to get close to the gates. Khan spent several hours on Wednesday trying to reach multiple gates.

The north gate was mobbed, with U.S. troops firing warning shots into the air or deploying tear gas to disperse the crowds, according to his lawyer, who was on FaceTime with him.

There were hours when it seemed like Khan and his family wouldn’t be able to get through, forcing him to consider trying alone and leaving them behind, his lawyer told ABC News’ Conor Finnegan, but “ultimately, it was his persistence that got them in.”

Once inside the airport, the process was efficient, his lawyer said. Two of her clients and their families were on flights within 30 minutes of being processed and entering the airport.

But the chaos outside is horrific, and Afghans are receiving conflicting correspondence from the U.S. embassy — some being told to shelter in place, others given specific instructions on which gates to proceed to — but that situation changing rapidly too, his lawyer said.

Aug 18, 11:01 am
Taliban seen forcefully patrolling area near Kabul airport

Thousands were still outside the airport in Kabul as the U.S. continues its evacuation efforts Wednesday and the Taliban patrolled the surrounding streets, only allowing foreigners through and occasionally firing warning shots, ABC News Senior Foreign Correspondent Ian Pannell reported.

The Taliban on Tuesday promised an “amnesty” for those who worked with the U.S. government and said it would allow for their safe passage to the airport, but on the ground on Wednesday, members of the Taliban were seen whipping Afghan civilians.

As many as 11,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans still are desperately trying to leave the country. The U.S. said late Tuesday it had evacuated 3,200 people from Afghanistan including all U.S. Embassy personnel except for a core group of diplomats. Officials have said they plan to launch one flight per hour to hopefully evacuate up to 9,000 people each day.

Still, the situation remains tense across Afghanistan, with the international community paying close attention to the Taliban’s every move.

Outside of Kabul, about 90 miles away in the eastern city of Jalalabad, anti-Taliban protesters were met with violence from fighters after replacing the Taliban flag in the city’s main square with the Afghan national flag, The Associated Press reported.

Aug 18, 9:58 am
Former Afghan president in United Arab Emirates on ‘humanitarian grounds’

The United Arab Emirates Foreign Ministry has confirmed in a statement that former Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani is in the United Arab Emirates, days after fleeing his home country.

Ghani and his family left Kabul on Sunday as the Taliban surged closer to the presidential palace. The Taliban ultimately overtook the building and has claimed the formation of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

Aug 18, 8:39 am
Few answers from Biden administration on Afghanistan despite pressure

Days removed from the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and after a lengthy news conference with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, there is still little clarity on how conditions degraded so quickly in Afghanistan.

When ABC News Correspondent Stephanie Ramos asked Sullivan about reports that Biden administration officials were informed the Taliban could overwhelm the country, the national security adviser denied seeing it.

“I’m not actually familiar with the intelligence assessments you’re describing,” said Sullivan.

The administration plans to conduct an evaluation of the calamity once evacuations are completed.

“We’ll look at everything that happened, in this entire operation, from start to finish, and the areas of improvement where we can do better,” Sullivan told reporters Tuesday. “Where we can find holes or weaknesses and plug them as we go forward” that analysis will be shared.

Lawmakers are also putting pressure on the Biden administration for answers. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee penned a letter to Biden demanding withdrawal plan details, plainly accusing the president of not having a concrete plan.

“For months, we have been asking you for a plan on your withdrawal from Afghanistan. You failed to provide us with one and based on the horrific events currently unfolding in Afghanistan, we are confident that we never received your plan because you never had one,” the letter reads. “The security and humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Afghanistan could have been avoided if you had done any planning.”

Aug 18, 7:52 am
Trauma injuries on the rise in Afghanistan, WHO warns

Months of violence in Afghanistan “have taken a heavy toll” on the country’s people and fragile health system, the World Health Organization warned Wednesday.

“As a result of the recent conflict, trauma injuries have increased, requiring scaled up emergency medical and surgical services,” Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said in a statement.

In July, some 13,897 conflict-related trauma cases were received at 70 WHO-supported health facilities in Afghanistan, compared with 4,057 cases during the same time last year, according to the WHO.

In Kabul and other areas where people have fled to seek safety and shelter, field reports indicate rising cases of diarrhea, malnutrition, high blood pressure, COVID-19-like symptoms and reproductive health complications. The country’s hospitals were already facing shortages in essential supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic, Al-Mandhari said.

Attacks on health care infrastructure and staff also remain a major challenge. From January to July, 26 health facilities and 31 health care workers were affected, while 12 workers were killed, according to the WHO.

“Delays and disruptions to health care will increase the risk of disease outbreaks and prevent some of the most vulnerable groups from seeking life-saving health care,” Al-Mandhari said. “There is an immediate need to ensure continuity of health services across the country, with a focus on ensuring women have access to female health workers.”

“The people of Afghanistan need support and solidarity today more than ever,” he added. “The gains of the past 20 years cannot be turned back.”

Aug 18, 7:40 am
ABC to interview Biden Wednesday  

Biden will sit down with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos one-on-one on Wednesday at the White House for the president’s first interview since the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The interview will air on ABC’s World News Tonight on Wednesday and Good Morning America on Thursday.

Aug 18, 6:23 am
Taliban delegation meets with former Afghan president in Doha

A high-level Taliban delegation has met with Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai, and the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, in Qatar’s capital and assured them of security, a Taliban source told ABC News on Wednesday.

The Taliban has said there is a general amnesty for all in Afghanistan, including former government officials, and that no one should flee the country.

Aug 18, 5:51 am
UK to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees over 5 years

The United Kingdom announced Tuesday a plan to welcome 20,000 Afghan refugees over five years.

The resettlement program will prioritize women, children and religious minorities.

“We have an enduring commitment to the Afghan people, and we will honour it,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter. “A new resettlement scheme will create a safe and legal route for those in most need to come and live safely in the UK.”

While addressing members of parliament on Wednesday morning, Johnson said his government has so far secured the safe return of 306 U.K. nationals and 2,052 Afghan citizens as part of the resettlement program, with a further 2,000 applications for Afghan nationals completed “and many more being processed.” An additional 800 British troops will be deployed to Afghanistan’s main international airport in Kabul to “support this evacuation operation,” according to Johnson.

“We are proud to bring these brave Afghans to our shores — and we continue to appeal for more to come forwards,” he said.

Aug 17, 11:55 pm
US Embassy destroyed some Afghans’ passports during evacuation

Last week when the U.S. Embassy in Kabul ordered staff to destroy sensitive material, including documents, passports were destroyed as well.

During the evacuation, embassy personnel destroyed the passports of Afghans that had been submitted for visa processing, according to a Democratic lawmaker’s office.

Rep. Andy Kim, D-NJ, has been compiling requests for assistance for Afghans on the ground, with his office funneling pleas for help through an email address. In the email’s response note, obtained by ABC News, it says, “Passports that were in the Embassy’s possession have been destroyed. Currently, it is not possible to provide further visa services in Afghanistan.”

A State Department spokesperson acknowledged that was true, but called it “standard operating procedure” during an evacuation and said it “will not prevent people who are otherwise eligible for evacuation from traveling.

Aug 17, 9:38 pm
House Armed Services Committee Republicans request Biden’s plan for Afghanistan

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee sent a letter to Biden requesting information about his “plan” for Afghanistan.

“For months, we have been asking you for a plan on your withdrawal from Afghanistan. You failed to provide us with one and based on the horrific events currently unfolding in Afghanistan, we are confident that we never received your plan because you never had one,” the letter says.

“The security and humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Afghanistan could have been avoided if you had done any planning. Pretending this isn’t your problem will only make things worse. We remain gravely concerned the void left in Afghanistan will be rapidly filled by terror groups. The Taliban now control the country. Al Qaeda used Afghanistan to plot and execute the 9/11 attacks and other acts of terrorism,” the letter continues. “You cannot let this happen again.”

Notably, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. — a member of the committee — has also signed the letter.

Cheney appeared on ABC’s This Week Sunday and said that Biden “absolutely” bears responsibility for the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, as does former President Donald Trump and his administration.

“What we’re watching right now in Afghanistan is what happens when America withdraws from the world,” Cheney told ABC This Week co-anchor Jonathan Karl. “So everybody who has been saying, ‘America needs to withdraw, America needs to retreat,’ we are getting a devastating, catastrophic real-time lesson in what that means.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.