Why evacuation from Kabul airport is complex and dangerous

Back-to-back explosions have been reported near Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport as the United States works rapidly to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan before a withdrawal deadline of Aug. 31. The Pentagon confirmed the apparent attack resulted in “a number of U.S. and civilian casualties.”

A “number of U.S. service members were killed” by Thursday’s attack at the Kabul airport, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed.

“A number of others are being treated for wounds,” Kirby said. “We also know that a number of Afghans fell victim to this heinous attack.”

Defense officials have been alarmed by threats at Hamid Karzai International Airport by a terrorist group called ISIS-K, sworn enemies of the Taliban. One official deemed the threat from a suicide bomber to be the chief concern for Afghans and U.S. citizens crowding the gates to the airport, and U.S. troops guarding it.

The evacuation effort reflects increased pressure on U.S. officials since the Taliban said they would not extend the deadline.

At least 95,700 people have been evacuated so far. Military and commercial flights evacuated about 13,400 people Wednesday, a decline from the past three days.

About 1,500 Americans remain in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have contacted 500 of them and are “aggressively” trying to reach the others.

Afghans who aided the American war effort will engage in a life-or-death struggle as they and their families try to secure seats on one of the last flights out.

This is how the complex and dangerous evacuation operation works:

Arriving at the airport and passing through a security gate is the first step. Approaching the airport through snarled traffic and Taliban roadblocks was already difficult, but now entry may now be impossible after U.S. forces closed all gates due to an apparent attack.

American citizens who show up at the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport would find a seat on one of the last flights out, but just about anybody else would be left behind, according to a U.S. official who is familiar with the operation but not authorized to speak publicly.

Outside the airport, desperation mounts for American citizens and Afghans who aided U.S. troops. U.S. special operators swooped into a neighborhood in Kabul to scoop up about 20 Americans unable to reach the airport, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Wednesday.

Getting through the gates and onto an aircraft requires approval from the U.S. State Department, which allows embassy personnel, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort.

Once inside the airport and cleared by security, individuals are lined up in preparation for boarding.

Satellite images captured Monday show organized groups of people on the tarmac filing into military aircraft.

Large U.S. Air Force planes – primarily used for moving vehicles or equipment – are pressed into service for the evacuation.

After leaving Hamid Karzai International Airport, evacuees bound for the USA fly to a military base in Qatar, Bahrain, Italy, Spain, Germany, Kuwait, or the United Arab Emirates.

U.S. citizens return home from there. Afghan nationals are checked by State Department and Homeland Security officials to determine whether they are qualified to enter the country.

Charities and human rights organizations help Afghan evacuees start new lives in the USA and Canada. Many Afghans will seek refuge in other countries.

Afghan nationals brought to the USA will be temporarily housed at one of four military bases:

  • Fort McCoy in Wisconsin
  • Fort Bliss in Texas
  • Fort Lee in Virginia
  • Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey

Afghan refugees may enter the USA under one of these programs:

  • Special Immigrant Visas: For those who helped U.S. forces during the war or were employed by the U.S. government.
  • Priority 2 designation: For those who worked with nongovernmental groups or U.S. news organizations.
  • Humanitarian parole: Proposed by advocates for Afghans living in other countries who fear persecution by the Taliban if they return to Afghanistan

U.S. troops fly Apache attack helicopters for protection at the Kabul airport.

They used huge Chinook helicopters to extract stranded American citizens and ferry them to the airport.

Some of those aircraft will probably be left, so there is space aboard C-17 cargo jets for the last troops, said a defense official who is familiar with the equipment at the airport but not authorized to speak publicly about the withdrawal.

An airstrike to destroy that equipment is likely, the defense official said. The Pentagon acknowledged that F-18 warplanes, operating from an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, patrol above Kabul. The Air Force has long-range B-1 and B-52 bombers that have flown combat sorties to Afghanistan for years from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. 

SOURCE USA TODAY Network reporting and research; The Associated Press; whitehouse.gov; defense.gov; unhcr.org; refugees.org

CONTRIBUTING Tom Vanden Brook, Joey Garrison, Javier Zarracina, and Shawn Sullivan



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