The latest on Afghanistan as US troop withdrawal deadline looms

By Melissa Macaya, Meg Wagner, Melissa Mahtani, Mike Hayes and Veronica Rocha, CNN

Updated 8:08 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021
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4:01 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

First US troops have started leaving Afghanistan as evacuation effort enters its final week

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

The first US troops have started leaving Afghanistan as the evacuation effort enters its final week, two defense officials told CNN.

At this point, only a "few hundred" troops have left of the total 5,800 at Kabul's international airport, and the evacuation mission remains the focus of the efforts on the ground.

"So far, the reduction does not affect the mission," one of the officials said, adding that the commander on the ground can decide what military personnel units have become redundant. That decision can be based on a few factors, including the number of gates open at the airport, the number of people coming through, and more.

"If you can have a smaller mission set and still conduct the mission, then you can reduce your footprint and reduce your risk," the official said.

The Pentagon has been acutely aware of the threat posed by ISIS-K and other terror groups around the airport, and have developed alternate routes to the field for US citizens and Afghan evacuees. In addition, in the Taliban has stated openly that it does not want a US military presence in Afghanistan after Aug. 31, warning that there will be "consequences" were the US to stay longer.

In remarks to an emergency meeting with G7 leaders on Tuesday, President Biden said the threat to US troops in Kabul was one of the key reasons he was sticking to the end of the month as the final withdrawal date

"There has been no change to the timeline of the mission which is to have this completed by the end of the month," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday morning.

"If the worst case scenario were to happen, you don't want more people there than you need," the defense official said.

As the US nears the final date of withdrawal, the number of Afghan evacuees flown out is expected to gradually decrease, while the number of US troops flown out is expected to increase.

3:33 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

UN Human Rights Council calls for "prompt investigation" into human rights violations in Afghanistan

From CNN’s Pierre Bairin

The United Nations Human Rights Council has called for a “transparent and prompt investigation” into reports of human rights abuses by all parties in Afghanistan, expressing “grave concern” on Tuesday over such violations. 

“The Council stressed the need for transparent and prompt investigation into repots of all violations and abuses committed by all parties to the conflict, and to hold those responsible to account,” the council said Tuesday in a statement.

“The Council expressed grave concern at all violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law in Afghanistan and called for full respect for the human rights of all individuals, including women, children and persons belonging to ethnic, religious and other minority groups,” the statement added. 

In its statement, the council urged all parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under international law, to cease violence, and to respect the right to liberty of movement and freedom to leave the country.

The statement comes as thousands – according to the US Pentagon – continue to wait at Kabul’s international airport to be evacuated from the country.

“The Council urged the international community, including donors and international humanitarian actors, to provide adequate urgent humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and major refugee-hosting countries,” the statement added. 

Speaking on Tuesday, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stressed that the “onus is now fully on the Taliban” to uphold its commitment to respect human rights and liberties, and to “translate these commitments into reality.”

“I strongly urge the Taliban to adopt norms of responsive governance and human rights, and to work to re-establish social cohesion and reconciliation,” she added. 

Bachelet also called on members of the international community to create safe pathways for Afghan refugees and migrants, “broaden asylum and resettlement programs,” and “immediately halt the deportation of Afghans seeking protection.”

 

3:20 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

Biden told G7 leaders the US is "on pace" to finish Afghan operations by Aug. 31, White House says

From CNN's Allie Malloy

White House press secretary Jen Psaki wrote in a White House readout that President Biden conveyed to G7 leaders today that the US is “currently on pace” to finish evacuations by Aug. 31. 

“He also made clear that with each day of operations on the ground, we have added risk to our troops with increasing threats from ISIS-K, and that completion of the mission by August 31st depends on continued coordination with the Taliban, including continued access for evacuees to the airport. In addition, the President has asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timeline should that become necessary,” Psaki added.

CNN reported earlier Tuesday that Biden will stick, for now, with an Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan.

3:02 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

US has evacuated 4,000 American passport holders and families

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force aircrew, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, prepare to load qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan on August 21.
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force aircrew, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, prepare to load qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan on August 21. (Senior Airman Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via AP)

The US has evacuated approximately more than 4,000 American passport holders plus their families, according to a senior State Department official, and they expect that number to continue to grow in the coming days.

“We are focused on getting people out of Kabul as quickly as we can and then processing the total numbers, which is why there is a delay in reporting,” the official said. “We also take the time to verify the numbers to make sure we aren’t inadvertently under or double-counting.”

The official said they “are continuing to contact the Americans who have previously registered with Kabul Embassy to determine whether or not they are still in Afghanistan, and to help them evacuate if they want to leave.”

CNN has asked for an estimate of how many Americans remain in Afghanistan.

2:49 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

Italy will divert resources allocated for Afghan military to humanitarian aid efforts

From CNN’s Livia Borghese 

Italy Prime Minister Mario Draghi arrives to the Colosseum on the first day of the G20 Culture Ministers meeting on July 29, in Rome.
Italy Prime Minister Mario Draghi arrives to the Colosseum on the first day of the G20 Culture Ministers meeting on July 29, in Rome. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

The Italian government will divert resources originally allocated to support the Afghan military in favor of humanitarian aid projects, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said Tuesday in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office.

“Italy will redirect the resources that were destined for Afghan military forces towards humanitarian aid. I ask you all to join this commitment, compatibly with the situation of your countries," Draghi said. 

Speaking after a virtual meeting of G7 leaders, the Italian prime minister thanked those “helping to ensure the successful outcome of the evacuation operations” in Kabul, including the US, UK and German armed forces.

Draghi noted that while leaders aim to have safely concluded operations in Kabul by the end of August, channels of access must be maintained at Kabul’s international airport beyond this date to guarantee safe passage through Afghanistan.

“We must ensure – right from the start – that international organizations have access to Afghanistan even after this deadline,” he added. 

According to the Italian Ministry of Defense, 488 people have so far been evacuated from Afghanistan by the Italian military on Tuesday.

As evacuation efforts continue, Draghi stressed that leaders must take a unified approach to immigration concerns at both the European and international level.

He also called for cooperation between leaders in the fight against terrorism, stressing that it is “essential to use all the diplomatic and financial levers” available. 

“To achieve all these objectives, I believe that the G7 must also show itself united in opening relations with other countries,” he said.

“The G20 can help the G7 in involving other countries that are very important because they have the ability to control what is happening in Afghanistan: Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India,” Draghi added.

 

2:31 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

France asks US for maximum time to finish evacuation operations 

From CNN’s Xiaofei Xu

The length of France’s military evacuation operation depends entirely on when the United States decides to pull its soldiers out of Kabul’s airport, according to an Elysee spokesperson Tuesday. 

“We are in the hands of the United States,” the spokesman said during a news briefing. “What we are telling the Americans is naturally to give us the maximum time to pursue the operations.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday that additional time beyond the Aug. 31 deadline is necessary for evacuations. Le Drian spoke during a visit to a French military base in Abu Dhabi, a transit point for the country’s evacuation operations. 

At the G7 meeting, France presented three main points of concern: the evacuation and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, the future political process in the country and the security risks presented by the Taliban takeover. 

The French presidency said all G7 members agreed that the Taliban must break all ties with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. France will work with the international community, including regional powers like China and Russia, to address these issues.

The priority for France right now is to help those who are ready and waiting outside the gates of Kabul’s airport to get into the airport and out of the country before the deadline. France has publicly demanded that Afghan authorities maintain, after the deadline, a way out of the country for those who want to leave, the spokesman said.

As of Tuesday, France has evacuated more than 1,500 Afghans and nearly 100 French nationals from Kabul to Paris, via Abu Dhabi, since operations began on Aug. 16, according to the French Foreign Ministry. 

 

2:09 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

NATO will pull out of Afghanistan when US does, source says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will pull its footprint from Afghanistan when the US withdraws, according to a diplomat familiar with the matter.

The future of the Kabul airport remains tenuous and uncertain, the diplomat said. There are ongoing talks, but the diplomat said if someone does not step in soon, the airport could close. This person has heard that the Qataris may play a role in running the airport.

This diplomat said people on the ground in Kabul are not pleased by President Biden’s decision to stick to the deadline, saying there is “an evident disconnect between the reality and the politics.”

They estimate that tens of thousands of people would be left behind because of the Aug. 31 deadline.

CNN has reached out to NATO for comment.

2:08 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

German chancellor says Afghanistan evacuation efforts cannot continue without US support

From CNN's Inke Kappeler

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the media about the situation in Afghanistan following a virtual meeting of G7 nation leaders on August 24, in Berlin
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the media about the situation in Afghanistan following a virtual meeting of G7 nation leaders on August 24, in Berlin (Filip Singer/Pool/Getty Images)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday said evacuation efforts in Afghanistan will not be able to continue without the support of the United States government.

Addressing reporters in Berlin following a virtual meeting of G7 leaders, she said G7 leaders must continue to work together on evacuation operations. 

“I have to emphasize that the US has the lead here. Without the US, we can't continue with the evacuations, this must be made clear,” Merkel said. 

“We want a unified G7 response and it won't help anything if each nation just does its own thing, but what we can say is that the evacuation is being carried out with a great feat of togetherness,” she added. 

The German chancellor also called on G7 leaders to take a unified approach to any future relations with the Taliban. 

"A group is being put together from within the G7 which will effort putting together a plan of action as to how we deal with the Taliban in future,” Merkel said, adding that leaders must talk to the Taliban as evacuation efforts continue. 

“It is clear that we want to evacuate as long as possible, but we can only evacuate as long as the security situation allows this, but the security situation is very difficult at present,” Merkel said. 

1:43 p.m. ET, August 24, 2021

Biden cited threat to US troops as key reason for sticking to Afghanistan withdrawal deadline

From CNN's Phil Mattingly, Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room on the continuing situation in Afghanistan and the developments of Hurricane Henri at the White House on August 22 in Washington. 
President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room on the continuing situation in Afghanistan and the developments of Hurricane Henri at the White House on August 22 in Washington.  (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden, in brief remarks at an emergency virtual meeting with leaders of the closest US allies, made security risks to US personnel on the ground a focal point of his explanation for sticking to his self-imposed Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, according to a senior administration official with knowledge of the remarks. 

Biden made clear the decision to stick to the withdrawal timeline was in large part driven by those security risks, noting that each day the risks get higher in a country now controlled by the Taliban. Biden made a particular point of warning of the potential for terror attacks, which has become an acute concern inside his administration, the officials said. 

Biden left open the possibility of extending it should the dynamic with the Taliban change. While advocating for maintaining the end of the month deadline, he said the risk of an attack is "very high," according to an administration official. 

Biden went into the meeting facing pressure from G7 allies — and bipartisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill — to extend the deadline, as concerns have grown that the scale of the operation leaves little chance to fully evacuate vulnerable Afghans by the end of the month.

Biden emphasized the current accelerated pace of evacuations to the assembled leaders and said his goal is still to see them completed by the end of the month, a Western official familiar with the conversation said. 

Still, Biden did point out that he had directed his team to draft contingency plans should the White House determine the evacuation needs to be extended. Any shift in Biden’s decision would be driven pace the of the evacuation in the days ahead, though it was made clear the safety of US personnel is considered paramount at this point.