Afghanistan Live Updates: Western Countries Step Up Evacuations, Taliban Tries to Rebrand

Live Updates

Chaotic scenes returned to Kabul's airport this morning, as evacuation efforts continue The Taliban is attempting to rebrand as a one that does not seek revenge attacks against civilians and allows women to work and study.

However, there were several reports of violence as Taliban leaders fired shots at protestors for raising the Aghanistan national flag in Jalalabad.

Despite claims from U.S. department leaders that Taliban forces are allowing safe passage to the Kabul airport, journalists on the ground report Taliban soldiers firing into crowds to prevent civilians from leaving the country.

The U.S. says it evacuated 2,000 people over the last 24 hours and looks to increase the flow of people and aircraft out of Kabul, Defense Secretary Llyod Austin told reports at a press briefing Wednesday.

The whereabouts of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani were discovered Wednesday after Ghani posted video messages from the United Arab Emirates. Ghani said left Afghanistan Sunday to avoid "bloodshed" as the Taliban closed in on Kabul.

The updates for this blog have ended.

KEY MOMENTS

Taliban Soldier Afghanistan
A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty saloon with images of women defaced using a spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. Wakil KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Defense Secretary Austin outlines his priorities in Afghanistan

During a press briefing Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin outlines his three main concerns for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

First, he aims to ensure the safety and security of Americans "and the people that we're trying to evacuate."

He said there are currently 4,500 U.S. troops on the ground who are ready to "defend themselves and their operations."

Austin noted that there have been "no hostile interactions with the Taliban" and the U.S. maintains "open" lines of communication with the Taliban.

Austin's second concern is to maintain security at Hamid Karazi International Airport.

"Our troops have set up defensive positions around the airport and the airport is able to function safely," he said.

He noted that he is in daily contact with General Mckenzie and commanders on the ground "to make sure that they have what they need to keep it safe."

The final focus is on "the pace" of evacuations. Austin said he aims to increase the flow of aircraft and people out of Kabul.

"We've flown out several thousand since 15th of August and our goal is to be able to increase our capacity every day going forward."

Austin added that he is working with the State Department on evacuation efforts.

"We've dispatched small military teams to two of the airport's gates to assist the State Department consular efforts as they evaluate and process individuals seeking entry. And we expect to be able to augment that capability in the coming days," he said.

U.S. Representatives urge President Biden to evacuate Afghan press

Two U.S. Representatives urged President Biden to evacuate Afghan journalists from Kabul.

Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Steve Chabot (R-OH), co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus, demanded the U.S. provide safe passage for Afghan press who face a risk of death or violence under Taliban rule.

"Journalists and media support staff who assisted media organizations are in imminent danger as Afghanistan continues to deteriorate," Schiff and Chabot wrote.

"These courageous individuals should receive safe passage to Hamid Karzai International Airport, and be transported to safety outside of the country if they request it."

As we evacuate Americans and Afghan allies, we must help journalists who risked their lives in pursuit of the truth.

Today, @RepSteveChabot and I delivered a letter to @POTUS calling on the administration to offer safe passage to the press.

We must ensure no one is left behind. pic.twitter.com/RlyxjxfqSQ

— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) August 18, 2021

Biden and Angela Merkel praised each other's efforts in Kabul

President Joe Biden spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday about the situation unfolding in Afghanistan.

According to a readout from the White House, the two leaders "praised the ongoing efforts of their military and civilian personnel who are working closely together in Kabul on the evacuation of their citizens, vulnerable Afghans, and the courageous Afghan nationals who worked tirelessly over the last 20 years to provide security, promote peace, and deliver development assistance to the Afghan people."

They also discussed the need for "close coordination" of humanitarian aid for Afghans and "agreed to continue planning for this work in the upcoming virtual meeting of G7 partners."

U.S. Embassy in Kabul says U.S. government cannot guarantee safe passage to the airport

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul told American citizens in Afghanistan that the U.S. government cannot ensure safe passage to the airport.

"THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT," the embassy said in its latest security alert.

The alert also said that flight will now be available "on a first come, first serve basis" and people may have to wait in the airport "for a significant amount of time until space is available."

Defense Department releases photos of U.S. forces in Kabul

The U.S. Department of Defense released photos of U.S. military forces on the ground in Kabul.

More @24thMEUMarines en route to Hamid Karzai International Airport to assist with the drawdown of designated personnel in Kabul, Afghanistan. pic.twitter.com/TBZ6qFMA5y

— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) August 18, 2021

Marines with the @24thMEUMarines hand out water and process civilians for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Department is working closely with the @StateDept and partners & allies to process eligible civilians. pic.twitter.com/3wZvXmfr4l

— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) August 18, 2021

U.S. Marines from the @24thMEUMarines process @StateDept personnel and civilians at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, before departing. pic.twitter.com/epkZjBfJpt

— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) August 18, 2021

Afghanistan's first female mayor is "terrified" about her county's future

Afghanistan's first female mayor is "terrified" about her county's future.

"We do not know what the Taliban are going to impose, but we know that the situation is going to get worse," Azra Jafari told Newsweek. "It is total chaos. We are not sure what is happening."

Jafari is also a member of the Hazara ethnic group, a religious and ethnic minority in Afghanistan with a long history of discrimination in the country.

"I worked as a mayor from 2008 to 2014. I saw changes, I saw energy and capacity for better life, and I saw hopes for a better future. But now it seems like all the progress is going backwards," Jafari said.

After 20 years of hard-fought advancements, Jafari fears that, under the Taliban, "women will be completely shut away from society."

READ MORE: "Afghanistan's First Female Mayor 'Terrified' of What's to Come With the Taliban"

Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left Kabul to prevent bloodshed

Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani released a video statement on Wednesday from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Ghani said he left Afghanistan in order to avoid bloodshed.

"I didn't want the bloodshed to commence in Kabul like it had in Syria and Yemen. So I decided to go, to leave Kabul," he said. "If I had stayed the President of Afghanistan, people would have been hanged and this would have been a dreadful disaster in our history."

He said his aim is to prevent violence and ensure peace for the Afghan people.

"My commitment to all my countrymen and women was to avoid bloodshed and to ensure peace, stability and development for Afghanistan, that was my overall objective," Ghani said in a video message shared on his Facebook page.

Ghani also said that before he left Afghanistan, he was working with the Taliban to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

"Before I left the country, I was working with the Taliban to ascertain a delegation to have negotiations to set the conditions for a peaceful transition of power, to keep Kabul safe," Ghani said.

Around 570,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in the European Union

Afghans make up the second-largest group to apply for asylum in the European Union since 2015 with around 570,000 applicants.

Applications from Afghans for asylum climbed roughly 30 percent since February when the United States announced it would be pulling troops out of Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported.

According to the EU's asylum office, over 4,648 applications were submitted in May; about half tend to be successful.

"It's important that we can help these people in Afghanistan, when possible, to return to their homes," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said. "We also need to help neighboring countries and support Afghanis and these neighboring countries in the region."

READ MORE: "Afghans Make Up Second-Largest Group Applying for Asylum in EU Since 2015"

Utah governor offers to help resettle Afghan refugees

Utah Governor Spencer Cox sent a letter to President Joe Biden expressing his desire to help with resettlement efforts for Afghan refugees.

"Utah was settled by refugees fleeing religious persecution," Cox said in a tweet. "We understand the pain caused by forced migration and appreciate the contributions of refugees in our communities."

Utah was settled by refugees fleeing religious persecution. We understand the pain caused by forced migration and appreciate the contributions of refugees in our communities.

Today we sent a letter to @POTUS expressing our desire in helping those who are fleeing Afghanistan. pic.twitter.com/ZuAnjMNEgY

— Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox (@GovCox) August 18, 2021

U.S. evacuated 2,000 people over the last 24 hours

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said that 2,000 people, including 325 American citizens, were evacuated from Afghanistan in 18 flights over the past 24 hours.

Kirby said the U.S. is still working towards its goal of getting 5,000 to 9,000 people out a day.

There are now about 4,500 U.S. troops on the ground in Kabul to secure the airport and help the airlift efforts.

Kirby said the U.S. military is talking regularly with the Taliban to help get Afghans into the airport and improve the paperwork process, including for Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas.

NATO to hold emergency meeting on Afghanistan Friday

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced he will chair an emergency meeting with the foreign ministers of the 30-nation alliance Friday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

"I have convened an extraordinary virtual meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers this Friday 20 August to continue our close coordination & discuss our common approach on Afghanistan," Stoltenberg said in a tweet.

I have convened an extraordinary virtual meeting of #NATO Foreign Ministers this Friday 20 August to continue our close coordination & discuss our common approach on #Afghanistan.

— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) August 18, 2021

Stoltenberg told CNN Wednesday that it is important for the allied nations to approach Afghanistan with a united front.

"It is in our national security interest to work together, especially in light of shifting global balance of power with the likes of China and more assertive Russia," he said.

U.S. troops fired "non-lethal warning" shots to control crowds at Kabul airport

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Wednesday that U.S. personnel fired some shots "on the airport side of the perimeter as crowd control measures, as non-lethal warnings if you will."

"No shots were fired by American troops at Afghans or anybody else," Kirby told reporters Wednesday. "None of these shots that we're aware of had anything to do with hostile intent or hostile activity, simply used as crowd control."

He said the troops were "doing what they're trained to do," which is to secure the airport and maintain order.

Kirby added that "we have no indication that there were any casualties or injuries as a result of these shots being fired."

"At least several fatalities" as U.S. Air Force plane left Kabul Monday, Pentagon says

During an off-camera press briefing Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said there were "at least several fatalities" when a U.S. Air Force plane took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport Monday.

Video circulated online of several Afghans clinging to the side of the plane as it took off and bodies falling off the aircraft when it was in the air.

"Clearly we know just by visual evidence and by the Air Force's statement that there were at least several fatalities involved in that, but I don't want to get ahead of the Air Force's review in terms of hard numbers of what the total toll was," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.

The U.S. Air Force said Tuesday that its Office of Special Investigations is investigating the incident.

Fort Bliss and Fort McCoy to house Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants

U.S. Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin authorized the use of Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin to house Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants, their families, and "other at risk individuals."

"The Department recently approved a request for assistance from the State Department to provide additional temporary housing, sustainment and support inside the United States for a number of up to 22,000," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.

The U.S. will also continue to use Fort Lee.

So far, 2,000 Afghan SIV applicants and their families have been relocated to the U.S., with tens of thousands more expected.

Most of Afghanistan's reserves are held outside of the country

Most of Afghanistan's $9 billion in reserves are held outside the county, the Associated Press reported.

In a Twitter thread, Ajmal Ahmady, Economic Advisor to the Afghanistan president, said that a majority of those funds are being held in U.S. Federal Reserve bonds, assets and gold.

"The amount of such cash remaining is close to zero due a stoppage of shipments as the security situation deteriorated, especially during the last few days," Ahmady tweeted.

The next shipment of cash was not delivered, likely because Afghanistan's partners "had good intelligence as to what was going to happen," Ahmady said.

Ahmady said the international sanctions will cause the Taliban to struggle to gain access to the country's reserves.

He added that the "Taliban won militarily — but now have to govern," and the group will not have an easy time doing so.

This thread is to clarify the location of DAB (Central Bank of Afghanistan) international reserves

I am writing this because I have been told Taliban are asking DAB staff about location of assets

If this is true - it is clear they urgently need to add an economist on their team

— Ajmal Ahmady (@aahmady) August 18, 2021

READ MORE: "Afghanistan Low on Physical Cash After Taliban Takeover as Reserves Held Outside Nation"

United Arab Emirates welcomes Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

The United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirms former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is in the UAE.

"The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation can confirm that the UAE has welcomed President Ashraf Ghani and his family into the country on humanitarian grounds," the UAE's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Ghani fled Afghanistan Sunday as the Taliban closed in on Kabul.

World Health Organization is "extremely concerned" for health of Afghans, especially women and girls

During a press briefing Wednesday, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the people of Afghanistan "are facing an enormous challenge."

"We're extremely concerned by the large displacement of people and increasing cases of diarrhea, malnutrition, high blood pressure, probable cases of COVID-19 and reproductive health complications," he said.

He added that there is an "immediate need to ensure sustained humanitarian access and continuity of health services across the country," especially focusing on the health and wellbeing of women and girls.

"We're particularly concerned about the health and wellbeing of women and girls," Dr. Tedros said. "I call on the international community and all actors to prioritize their access to all health services and to safeguard their futures."

"We cannot backslide on two decades of progress," he added.

Dr. Tedros said WHO sent trauma kits and other medical supplies to remaining WHO staff in Afghanistan "to help health workers responding to the increases in injuries they're seeing."

CNN's Clarissa Ward reports on "mayhem" near the Kabul airport

CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward calls the chaotic scene outside the Kabul airport "mayhem" as Taliban soldiers prevent crowds from leaving with gunfire.

"It's bumper to bumper, cars are barely moving. There are Taliban fighters all around. We actually did see them physically trying to get people back. We have seen them and heard them a lot as well firing on the crowds to disperse the crowds," Ward reported, about 200 yards from the airport entrance.

From what she can see, the Taliban are not targeting specific people to kill in the crowd, but "the minute you're firing willy-nilly when you have a bunch of civilians all over the road and civilian vehicles, people get hurt," Ward said.

In addition to the threat of violence from the Taliban, Ward said the disorder is making it "impossible" for ordinary civilians to navigate the evacuation system at the airport, even if they have the proper paperwork.

"It's very dicey, it's very dangerous, and it's completely unpredictable. There's no order. There's no coherent system for processing people...it's a miracle that more people have not been seriously hurt," she said.

EU, U.S. and 18 other countries release a statement calling for women's rights in Afghanistan

The European Union, the United States, and 18 other nations said in a joint statement Wednesday they are "deeply worried about Afghan women and girls, their rights to education, work and freedom of movement."

"We call on those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee their protection," Albania, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, European Union, Honduras, Guatemala, North Macedonia, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Senegal, Switzerland and the United States of America said in the joint statement.

"Afghan women and girls, as all Afghan people, deserve to live in safety, security and dignity," the statement said. "Any form of discrimination and abuse should be prevented. We in the international community stand ready to assist them with humanitarian aid and support, to ensure that their voices can be heard."

The statement said these nations will closely monitor how the future government in Afghanistan ensures rights and freedoms "that have become an integral part of the life of women and girls in Afghanistan during the last twenty years."

China will only recognize Taliban rule after an "open inclusive" government is created

China is waiting for the establishment of an "open, inclusive, and widely representative" government in Afghanistan before it recognizes Taliban authority.

"If we are going to recognize a government, we will have to wait till the government is formed," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press briefing Wednesday.

"Only after that, will we come to the question of diplomatic recognition," Zhao said.

Zhao also reiterated Beijing's hope for a "smooth transition" to avoid further violence.

"China will continue to support the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan and provide assistance to Afghanistan's economic and social development within its capacity," Zhao said.

Afghans gather outside British parliament

Protesters, including former interpreters for the British army, are protesting outside the U.K. Parliament while Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his ministers and MPs debate the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Afghans protests outside British parliament
Protesters, including former interpreters for the British Army in Afghanistan, protest outside the British parliament Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

Pakistan reopens border crossing t

Hundreds of Afghan nationals holding Pakistani visas are fleeing across the border to safety, according to Pakistan's Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed.

He confirmed that the Torkham border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - closed since the weekend - and the Chaman border in Balochistan are both now open for people to walk through.

Since Saturday, over 400 Afghan nationals have entered Pakistan, though he added that "no refugees have entered Pakistan yet" and that the country has not had to make any "arrangements for refugees" so far.

Taliban fires into crowd of protesters in Jalalabad - reports

The Taliban has reportedly stormed a rally and opened fire on a crowd of protesters trying to raise the Afghan flag in the city of Jalalabad.

Videos posted online show panicked crowds running for cover as Taliban fighters open fire. It wasn't immediately clear if anyone had been killed or injured.

Former spokesperson for Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior Affairs, Najeeb Nangyal, tweeted that casualties had been reported.

READ MORE: Taliban Reportedly Fires Into Crowd Of Protesters Waving Afghanistan Flag

Breaking:

Protestors in Jalalabad city want the national flag back on offices & rejects Taliban terrorists’ flag. Taliban openly fires at protestors. Reports of casualties. pic.twitter.com/EFoy4oh3uT

— Najeeb Nangyal (@NajeebNangyal) August 18, 2021

Female journalists continue reporting in Kabul

In a sign the Taliban is so far keeping its promises about women and freedom of the press in the capital city, female reporters have been out and about in Kabul as usual.

Our brave female journalists out and about in Kabul this morning ⁦@TOLOnewspic.twitter.com/tAC29Y2zIG

— Saad Mohseni (@saadmohseni) August 17, 2021

Mike Pence accuses President Biden of 'embarrassing America'

In the latest attack on the president from Republican critics, the former V.P. said the chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan shows "weakness" in his leadership.

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Pence said labelled the situation a "foreign-policy humiliation unlike anything our country has endured since the Iran hostage crisis".

In recent days, the world has watched panicked civilians cling to U.S. military aircraft in a desperate attempt to escape the chaos unleashed by Mr. Biden's reckless retreat. American diplomats had to beg our enemies not to storm our embassy in Kabul. Taliban fighters have seized scores of American military vehicles, rifles, artillery, aircraft, helicopters and drones.

EU diplomat says countries 'must speak with the Taliban'

The political bloc's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, hit out at those criticizing him for promoting open talks with the terrorist group to secure safe evacuation flights from Kabul's airport.

"I said that we must speak with them and some people found that scandalous," he told a Spanish radio station earlier. "But how are we supposed to open a safe passage to the airport if we are not speaking with those who have taken control of Kabul?"

We have seen images of crowds on the landing strips that make the operation of the airport difficult. We hope that the situation can be controlled and that our planes can land and take off, but to be frank, I don't know. Where we need to act is not so much in the airport itself, which the American army has under its control, but in how to get those who need to leave to the airport.

Reports from military officials suggest the Taliban has been allowing safe passage for those who want to leave.

Boris Johnson tells other countries to accept more refugees

The British Prime Minister reaffirmed the U.K.'s promise to take in 5,000 Afghan refugees this year and the following four years, offering safety to 20,000 in total.

Some countries are only taking a small number, with flights leaving Kabul with just a few dozen people on them, while hundreds are packed into U.S. and U.K. aircraft.

But Johnson has come under fire for accepting only 5,000 of the total 20,000 this year, with critics suggesting more should be done to help those.

One MP in the House of Commons asked the PM: "What are the other 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait until they've been executed?"

Australian PM confirms 26 evacuated, praises U.S./U.K. troops for keeping stability

An Australian evacuation flight carrying 26 people arrived in the United Arab Emirates early this morning, PM Scott Morrison has just confirmed.

A Royal Australian Air Force C130 flight landed in Dubai with a mix of Australian citizens, Afghan nationals, and an official working for an international agency.

I can confirm that security situation at the airport has improved and more broadly across Kabul and that is supported particularly by the presence of U.S. and U.K. troops on the ground being able to take control of the airport. It still, though, remains an incredibly challenging environment in which to operate.

Taliban destroys statue of Shiite militia leader

The Taliban has blown up the statue of a Shiite militia leader who had fought against them during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s, according to photos circulating on social media Wednesday.

The statue depicted Abdul Ali Mazari - a champion of Afghanistan's ethnic Hazara minority who were persecuted under the Sunni Taliban's earlier rule.

The statue stood in the central Bamyan province, where the Taliban infamously blew up two massive 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha carved into a mountain in 2001.

Head of British Army: Taliban 'have changed' and U.K. is 'collaborating' with them on the ground

Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, praised the Taliban for "keeping the streets of Kabul very safe and indeed very calms" during an interview with Sky News.

We are collaborating with the Taliban on the ground and that seems to be a very straightforward relationship. They are keeping the streets of Kabul very safe and indeed very calm. They are helping us at the airport and I think we have a worrying problem potentially with worried Afghans trying to get to the airport and we saw some very troubling scenes.

He said his team was "not getting reports of them behaving in a sort of medieval way like we might have seen in the past" and urged people to "listen to what they are saying at the moment", stating that he believes "they have changed".

Over 1,000 U.S. citizens evacuated from Afghanistan yesterday

The White House said 13 flights yesterday airlifted around 1,100 U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and their families from Kabul's airport.

The American operation at the facility is expected to pick up today, alongside other Western countries, to evacuate Afghans looking to flee the Taliban.

Taliban allows safe passage for Afghans struggling to reach U.S. airlift

The Taliban have agreed to allow "safe passage" for civilians struggling to join a U.S.-directed airlift from Kabul's airport, President Joe Biden's national security adviser has confirmed.

Jake Sullivan on Tuesday acknowledged reports that some civilians were encountering resistance — "being turned away or pushed back or even beaten" — as they tried to reach airport. But he said "very large numbers" were reaching the airport and the problem of the others was being taken up with the Taliban.

Good morning and welcome to Newsweek's liveblog

A frenzied mix of evacuation operations continue this morning as the Taliban attempts to rebrand and consolidate their power.

Thousands of fleeing Afghans are climbing aboard flights from Australia, Germany, the U.K. and others as intense debate gets underway about how the withdrawal of troops was handled by President Biden.

Follow Newsweek's liveblog throughout Wednesday for all the latest...