by David FOX
KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) — The Taliban warned Monday there would be “consequences” if the United States and its allies try to remain in Afghanistan beyond next week, as Washington ramped up its efforts to evacuate tens of thousands of people desperate to flee.
Thousands of troops have poured back into the country to oversee the chaotic airlift of foreigners and Afghans from Kabul airport, and pressure is mounting on US President Joe Biden to extend an August 31 deadline for full withdrawal.
Biden and his Group of Seven counterparts — several of whom are pushing him to leave soldiers at the airport to keep it open — will meet Tuesday, with coordination on Afghanistan and how to handle the hardline Islamist Taliban atop the agenda.
“The goal is to get as many people out as fast as possible,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday.
“The focus is on trying to do this as best we can, by the end of the month.”
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters that the White House believes it can get all Americans out by the deadline — but insisted the large majority of those being evacuated each day were Afghan nationals.
So far, the Taliban have shown no willingness to compromise.
Spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News that any foreign military presence beyond the agreed deadline would be “extending occupation”.
“If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations — the answer is no… there would be consequences,” he said.
The Taliban are currently working on forming a government, but two sources within the movement told AFP there would be no announcements on a cabinet until the last US soldier has left Afghanistan.
The rush to leave Kabul has sparked harrowing scenes and left at least eight people dead — some were crushed to death and at least one, a youth football player, died after falling off a plane.
The German defence ministry said Monday an Afghan man was killed and three others wounded in a dawn firefight between local guards and unknown assailants.
The Taliban, infamous for an ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law during their 1996-2001 rule, have repeatedly claimed to be different this time and declared an amnesty for government forces and officials.
But an intelligence document for the United Nations said militants were going door-to-door hunting former government officials and those who worked with US and NATO forces.
In the capital, the former insurgents have enforced some sense of calm in a city long marred by violent crime, with their fighters patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints.
With government offices still mostly closed, many Afghans are worried about being paid — but the Taliban announced the appointment of a central bank governor Monday to keep the wheels of finance moving.
The hardliners have also been looking to make their authority visible to all, ensuring the tri-coloured national flag is replaced with their white banner.
Over the weekend in Kabul, young men set up a roadside stand to sell Taliban flags, which bear in black text the Muslim proclamation of faith and the regime’s formal name: “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.
‘Additional time is needed’
While Biden and his top aides insist the airlift can be completed on time, the European Union and Britain are saying that is impossible.
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Prime Minister Boris Johnson would raise the issue at the G7 virtual summit.
“If their timetable extends even by a day or two, that will give us a day or two more to evacuate people,” Wallace told reporters in Scotland.
Germany said it was in talks with NATO allies and the Taliban to keep Kabul’s airport open for evacuations beyond August 31, while France said “additional time is needed to complete ongoing operations”.
“We remain in close touch with allies and partners to coordinate the evacuation of their own citizens and their priority personnel,” Sullivan said at the White House.
Biden and his aides have acknowledged the tragic scenes at the airport, which have included babies and children being passed to soldiers over razor-wire fences and men clinging to the outside of departing planes, but say they are unavoidable.
“There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss and heartbreaking images you see,” Biden said Sunday.
A White House official said Monday that 10,900 people were evacuated over the past 12 hours (until 1900 GMT) from Kabul airport, taking to 48,000 the number relocated since the intensified airlift began on August 14.
Outside Kabul, there have been flickers of resistance against the Taliban.
Some ex-government troops have gathered in the Panjshir Valley, north of the capital — long known as an anti-Taliban bastion. There were scattered reports of clashes overnight.
Taliban fighters are “stationed near Panjshir”, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted, adding the group was trying to resolve this issue “peacefully”.
One of the leaders of the movement in Panjshir, named the National Resistance Front, is the son of famed anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The NRF is prepared for a “long-term conflict” but is also still seeking to negotiate with the Taliban about an inclusive government, its spokesman Ali Maisam Nazary told AFP in an interview on the weekend.
© Agence France-Presse