Hundreds of people poured onto the tarmac at Kabul’s international airport, desperately seeking a route out of Afghanistan on Monday, after the Taliban’s sudden seizure of power sparked a chaotic Western withdrawal and brought to a crashing end the United States’ two-decade mission in the country.
Commercial flights at Hamid Karzai International Airport have been canceled, but footage there showed frenzied crowds trying to force their way onto any airplane leaving the city late on Sunday night and Monday morning – some even hanging to the sides of military aircraft with their bare hands as the planes taxied the runway.
The hard-won gains for women in Afghanistan are evaporating. The homes of two female journalists were visited by Taliban fighters on Sunday, their contact told CNN, and several female journalists have received threatening calls from the group in recent days.
One high profile female journalist in Kabul said she had received a threatening call from the Taliban, telling here they “will come soon.”
These harrowing accounts come as the US, the United Kingdom and other nations mount a hurried evacuation of embassy staff and nationals, in scenes echoing the fall of Saigon, 46 years ago.
It’s a withdrawal US President Joe Biden said he still stood “squarely behind” on Monday in his first remarks since the Taliban takeover, where he continued the administration’s efforts to shift the blame onto Afghan leaders for the fall of Kabul, saying the political leaders “gave up and fled the country.”
“The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments in the past week reinforced ending that US military involvement Afghanistan now was the right decision,” he said.
Biden admitted, however, that the administration had miscalculated how rapidly Kabul would fall. “The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” he said.
The sudden arrival of chaos in Kabul has taken many by surprise. US intelligence analysts had predicted it would likely take several more weeks before Afghanistan’s civilian government in Kabul fell to Taliban fighters. But on Sunday, after encroaching toward the city, the militants took control of the presidential palace while ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
Afghans now await reports of what kind of regime they will live under. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen assured the Afghan people there will be “no risk to their property, to their lives or to their honor,” telling CNN that the Taliban is committed to investigating any claims of assassinations or lives being threatened.
He said the Taliban was committed to an “inclusive Islamic government,” and promised an amnesty to those Afghans who worked with the US forces, Afghan government or international NGOs. Shaheen also pledged that women and girls would maintain the rights that they have gained over the past two decades.
The US defense secretary has meanwhile approved the deployment of 1,000 more American troops into the country due to the deteriorating security situation, a defense official told CNN, upping the number of troops in the country to 6,000. All US embassy staff have been evacuated and were at the airport on Sunday night, the State Department said.
The US military is guarding a section of the airport, but its embassy in Kabul warned American citizens and Afghans not to travel there unless explicitly told to do so. At one point on Monday the US was forced to temporarily suspend its air operations, a US defense official told CNN, while troops tried to clear the airfield.
Astonishing footage from the site also showed people trying to board aircraft as they took off and landed.
One video showed a C-17 ascending over a Kabul neighborhood, and at least one person or object appeared to fall from the fuselage. Seconds later another person or object appeared to fall.
Local people posted video and images of at least one body that they said had fallen from the sky and landed on the roof of a building, according to social media posts.
CNN cannot independently verify that anyone was still clinging to the aircraft when it took off – and it’s not known if it was the same plane, or whether the crew was aware that people were clinging to the plane at all. Multiple US defense officials told CNN they could not confirm the incident.
Several C-17 transport planes have been seen leaving, while the Turkish government said a flight it organized had departed. In the UK, the first flight carrying British nationals and embassy staff arrived home on Sunday night.
Witnesses CNN has spoken with at the airport say they have heard many gunshots fired throughout the day on Monday. It’s unclear if the shots were fired at people or just into the air to disperse crowds, or by whom, the witnesses said.
One of the witnesses CNN spoke with is hoping to get on a flight out of Afghanistan, fearing persecution at the hands of the Taliban when the Americans leave. At one point, the witness managed to get inside the airport, where they saw US soldiers telling Afghans to “stay back.”
“The US need to take us with them. Once they’re gone we will be left behind forever,” the witness said.
US troops kill two armed men at airport
Amid scenes of disarray at the airport, US forces shot and killed two armed men Monday after they fired on American forces, according to a US defense official.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said later on Monday there was “no indication” that the men shot by US troops were Taliban. But a witness told CNN the men shot and killed by US forces were Taliban fighters. The witness also said a third fighter was injured in the confrontation.
According to the witness, Taliban fighters arrived while multiple high-profile foreign and Afghan vehicles were trying to enter the airport through a specific entrance. The witness said there was confusion at the scene and Taliban fighters shot into the air to try to clear the gate.
According to the witness, the US military fired back, hitting what they said were three Taliban fighters, killing two and injuring the other.
CNN has been unable to independently verify the three men were members of the Taliban.
Additionally, the US defense official said, the military has a report that one US troop was injured by a gunshot in another incident at the airport but the circumstances have not been confirmed.
Militants visible across Kabul
Elsewhere in Kabul, where Afghans awoke to Taliban control for the first time in two decades on Monday, the reality of the new regime is beginning to set in.
The militants are visible at several locations across the capital, and some of the men have started painting over images of uncovered women outside several beauty salons.
“What we are witnessing in Afghanistan is a tragedy that should have been foreseen and averted. It will only be compounded further without swift and decisive action from the international community,” Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnès Callamard, said in a statement Monday.
“Thousands of Afghans are at serious risk of Taliban reprisals – from academics and journalists to activists and women human rights defenders – and are in danger of being abandoned to a deeply uncertain future,” she added.
CNN asked Taliban fighters whether they will ban smoking or make men grow their beards, as they did during their previous five-year rule. The fighters said nothing will be implemented drastically or immediately, but that Afghans are Muslim people and want to live under Muslim law.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted on Monday that the group is nearing “full control” of the Afghan capital.
During his address to the American people on Monday, Biden said the US mission in Afghanistan was about counter terrorism, not nation building.
“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today, what it has always been, preventing a terrorist attack on [the] American homeland,” Biden said.
Biden also addressed detractors criticizing the administration, asking: “I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay – how many more generations America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight in Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not?”
Among US allies, there remain questions about the nature of their withdrawal of troops from the country, which precipitated the Taliban’s surge.
The UK’s Defense Secretary, Ben Wallace, fought back tears in an interview Monday, admitting that “some people won’t get back” from the country. “It’s sad that the West has done what it’s done,” he said.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Celine Alkhaldi, Vasco Cotovio, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Jonny Hallam, Christiane Amanpour, Emmet Lyons and Henry Hullah, Tara John, Nicky Robertson and Barbara Starr contributed reporting.