The Taliban has been warned they would face “overwhelming force” if they interfere with evacuation efforts, the U.S. Central Command indicated on Tuesday, following chaotic scenes of thousands of people trying to flee Afghanistan at Kabul airport after the terrorist group took control of the country on Sunday.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said he had met with senior Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday. “I cautioned them against interference in our evacuation, and made it clear to them that any attack would be met with overwhelming force in the defense of our forces,” he said in a statement.
“The protection of U.S. civilians and our partners is my highest priority and we will take all necessary action to ensure a safe and efficient withdrawal,” he added. “To that end, we are prepared to fully support U.S. Embassy efforts to process and evacuate U.S. citizens, partners, special visa applicants, and Afghans at risk.”
Americans Urged to Leave Afghanistan
U.S. officials are urging Americans to travel to the Hamid Karzai International Airport, also known as Kabul airport, to fly out of the country. Previously, the State Department asked Americans to shelter in place.
Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor told a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday that more than 4,000 U.S. troops are now at the airport to help facilitate evacuations via both military and civilian flights.
More than 6,000 troops are expected to be involved in securing the airport in coming days—more than twice as many as in all of Afghanistan when Biden announced in April he would be ending the U.S. war effort and pulling out all troops.
Taylor said that overnight, seven C-17 planes took off with 700-800 civilian evacuees, including 165 Americans. The figure included Afghans who have applied for special immigrant visas and third-country nationals, he said.
McKenzie said he visited the airport on Tuesday and deemed the airfield “secure and now open to civilian air traffic operating under visual flight rules.” He said U.S. forces are currently working to “efficiently operate the airfield while ensuring the safe movement of civilians and diplomats who are leaving Kabul.”
“U.S. military air traffic controllers and ground handlers are rapidly scaling up operations to ensure the smooth flow of military reinforcements to the airport and the evacuation of U.S. and partner civilians in coordination with our State Department colleagues,” he said.
The White House said that 1,100 Americans, permanent U.S. residents, and their families were evacuated via 13 flights on Tuesday, and that the pace was expected to pick up through the week. So far, 3,200 have been evacuated in total.
Kirby and Taylor said Tuesday that the goal is to reach one evacuation flight per hour on Wednesday, with 5,000 to 9,000 evacuees leaving per day.
Taliban Promises ‘Safe Passage’ to Airport
The scene at the airport on Monday was one of chaos, with thousands of people crowding Kabul airport, desperate to flee the country. Video from the day showed Taliban fighters outside the airport firing shots as crowds tried to enter.
Videos also showed hundreds of people rushing onto the airport’s single runway and swarming a U.S. military aircraft and clinging to its side, with at least two falling off it as it was leaving. Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said on Tuesday that human remains were found inside the wheel well of the same plane that was swarmed, after it landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Separately, Kirby said Monday that U.S. soldiers at the airport were shot at and were forced to return fire, killing two “armed individuals.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that the Taliban has since committed “to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport.”
When asked about whether any assurances are in place, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “the consequences are the full weight and force of the United States military.” She added that the administration is “not trusting” the Taliban and are closely watching the actions of the extremist Islamist terrorist group.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.