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The US and its allies rushed to evacuate diplomatic and civilian personnel from Kabul over the weekend after the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital.
Taliban insurgents reached the outskirts of Kabul on Sunday as the US ferried diplomats from its embassy to the airport by helicopter. Ashraf Ghani, Afghan president, then fled the country, effectively handing power to the Islamist group.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said diplomats were being moved to the airport, but insisted that America would maintain a core diplomatic presence.
Blinken pushed back on suggestions that the hasty US evacuation echoed the final days of the Vietnam war in 1975, saying: “This is manifestly not Saigon.”
But in a sign of the frantic nature of the evacuation, the US embassy issued a statement on Sunday evening advising citizens not to travel to Kabul airport.
“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place,” the embassy said.
On Saturday, US president Joe Biden announced that 1,000 more troops would be deployed to support the evacuation effort, in addition to the 1,000 still present in Afghanistan and the 3,000 sent last week.
However, one western defence official admitted that the next 24 hours were crucial and could be “pretty hairy” depending on whether the Taliban allowed the US and its allies to evacuate personnel unhindered.
General Sir Richard Barrons, former head of the UK’s joint forces command, warned of an extraordinary crush at Kabul airport as countries sought to evacuate staff.
“The military conundrum is that the western forces that are there can hold the perimeter of the airport,” Barrons told the Financial Times. “But unless the military also dominate the flight approaches to the airport, the security evacuation is reliant on the consent of the Taliban. If there’s one anti-aircraft missile, then you’re in a different game.”
A contested evacuation process might mean western allies mounting a larger military operation involving more troops, Barrons said.
As pressure mounted to evacuate diplomats and their staff, US forces took command of the air traffic control tower at Kabul’s airport.
The UK government said last week that it would send 600 troops to Kabul to expedite the evacuation of British diplomats and local staff.
UK officials said the “bulk” of that deployment had now arrived, and that two flights had left Kabul over the weekend, transporting embassy employees back to the UK. One official said further British troops were being “held at readiness” in case more personnel were needed.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirmed that it had reduced its diplomatic presence on the ground but said the ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, remained in Kabul. “We are doing all we can to enable remaining British nationals, who want to leave Afghanistan, to do so,” it said.
Germany also moved its embassy staff to the city’s airport on Sunday, and began evacuating citizens and Afghan local employees in what is being described as the largest such mission in the Bundeswehr’s history.
“We will now do everything we can to facilitate the departure of our citizens and our former local employees over the coming days. But it is hard to predict the circumstances under which that can occur”, said Heiko Maas, German foreign minister.
“For that reason we are also in close contact with the US and other international partners. We have agreed that we will mutually support each other in the evacuation measures over the coming days.”
France said it was continuing its efforts to extract French nationals as well as hundreds of Afghan civilians who helped as interpreters and in other roles.
According to the Elysée palace, between May and July this year 625 Afghans and their families have benefited from a new measure to receive and protect exiles in France, in addition to hundreds of others already taken in since 2013.
By contrast, the Russian embassy in Kabul said it saw no threat from developments in the city and no need to evacuate at the moment, Tass state news agency reported.
“The situation in Kabul is a bit tense, but there is no war in the city,” the Russian embassy told Tass. The Taliban pledged on Sunday to guarantee safety for the Russian embassy in Kabul.
“We have good relations with Russia and our policy, in general, is to ensure safe conditions for operations of the Russian and other embassies,” Tass quoted a Taliban official as saying.