Thousands of Afghans rushed onto the tarmac of Kabul’s international airport Monday, some so desperate to escape the Taliban capture of their country that they held onto an American military jet as it took off and plunged to death in the chaos that killed at least seven people, U.S. officials said.
The crowds of people rushing the airport came as the Taliban enforced their rule over the wider capital after a lightning advance across the country that took just over a week to dethrone the country’s Western-backed government. While there were no major reports of abuses, many stayed home and remained fearful as the insurgents’ advance saw prisons emptied and armories looted.
The Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, bringing an end to a two-decade campaign in which the U.S. and its allies had tried to transform Afghanistan. The country’s Western-trained security forces collapsed or fled, ahead of the planned withdrawal of the last American troops at the end of the month.
Residents raced to Kabul’s international airport, where the “civilian side” was closed until further notice, according to Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority. The U.S. military and other Western forces continued to organize evacuations.
Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people running across the tarmac as U.S. troops fired warning shots in the air. One showed a crowd pushing and shoving its way up a staircase, trying to board a plane, with some people hanging off the railings.
In another video, hundreds of people could be seen running alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moved down a runway. Some clung to the side of the jet just before takeoff. Another video showed several falling through the air as the airplane rapidly gained altitude over the city.
Senior military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing operation, told The Associated Press that the chaos left seven dead, including several who fell from the flight.
The storming of the airport, seen from space by passing satellites, raised questions about how much longer aircraft would be able to safely take off and land.
Shafi Arifi, who had a ticket to travel to Uzbekistan on Sunday, was unable to board his plane because it was packed with people who had raced across the tarmac and climbed aboard, with no police or airport staff in sight.
“There was no room for us to stand,” said the 24-year-old. “Children were crying, women were shouting, young and old men were so angry and upset, no one could hear each other. There was no oxygen to breathe.”
After a woman fainted and was carried off the plane, Arifi gave up and went back home.
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 have also closed their missions and are flying out staff and nationals.
Afghans are also trying to leave through land border crossings, all of which are now controlled by the Taliban. Rakhmatula Kuyash, 30, was one of the few people with a visa allowing him to cross into Uzbekistan on Sunday. He said his children and relatives had to stay behind.
“I’m lost and I don’t know what to do. I left everything behind,” he said.
A senior U.S. official said “it’s heartbreaking” to see what’s happening in Kabul, but that President Joe Biden “stands by” his decision to pull out because he didn’t want the war there — already the longest in U.S. history — to enter a third decade.
In interviews with U.S. television networks, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan blamed the Afghan military for the Taliban’s rapid takeover, saying it lacked the will to fight.
The ease with which the Taliban took control goes beyond military prowess, however, the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor wrote.
“The speed of the Taliban’s final advance suggests less military dominance than effective political insurgency coupled with an incohesive Afghan political system and security force struggling with flagging morale,” it said.
The lightning Taliban offensive through the country appears to have stunned American officials. Just days before the insurgents entered Kabul with little if any resistance, a U.S. military assessment predicted it could take months for the capital to fall.
The rout threatened to erase 20 years of Western efforts to remake Afghanistan that saw tens of thousands of Afghans killed as well as more than 3,500 U.S. and allied troops. The initial invasion drove the Taliban from power and scattered al-Qaida, which had planned the 9/11 attacks while being sheltered in Afghanistan. Many had hoped the Western-backed Afghan government would usher in a new era of peace and respect for human rights.
As the U.S. lost focus on Afghanistan during the Iraq war, the Taliban eventually regrouped. The militants captured much of the Afghan countryside in recent years and then swept into cities as U.S. forces prepared to withdraw ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline.
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 insurgents have sought to project greater moderation in recent years, but many Afghans remain skeptical.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, tweeted that fighters had been instructed to protect “life, property and honor,” and the group has also said it will stay out of the upscale diplomatic quarter housing the U.S. Embassy complex.
Meanwhile, the head of U.S. Central Command met face-to-face with senior Taliban leaders in Qatar and won their agreement to establish an arrangement under which evacuation operations at the airport can continue without interference, a U.S. defense official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks not yet announced publicly.
But some worried those promises are hollow. On Monday, Nillan, a 27-year-old resident of Kabul, said she didn’t see a single woman out on the streets during a 15-minute drive, “only men and boys.”
“It feels like time has stopped. Everything’s changed,” she told The Associated Press. She said even the most independent Afghan women now have to worry about the simplest things, such as how to get groceries in the absence of a male escort.
Nillan, who spoke on condition that she only be identified by her first name out of fear for her safety, said the Taliban ran TV ads urging people to return to work, without mentioning women.
“We don’t know what to do, we don’t know if we still have jobs,” she said. “It feels like our life and our future has ended.”