August 16, 2021, Afghanistan-Taliban news

By Melissa Mahtani, Meg Wagner, Michael Hayes, Melissa Macaya, Aditi Sangal, Brad Lendon, Joshua Berlinger and Kara Fox, CNN

Updated 12:05 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021
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8:50 a.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Biden will address the American people on Afghanistan, national security adviser says

From CNN's Jason Hoffman

(Samuel Corum/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
(Samuel Corum/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday the American people can expect to hear from President Biden “soon” but would not say if that would be today. 

Biden, who remains at Camp David on his August vacation, is “deeply engaged” on the situation and in contact with his national security team regarding the mission of getting Americans and Afghans evacuated, according to Sullivan. 

“At the right point he will absolutely address the American people,” Sullivan said during an interview on ABC Monday morning.

Sullivan continued to defend the President’s decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, becoming the latest White House official to put the blame for the swift Taliban takeover of the country on the Afghan government and security forces.

Sullivan said President Biden did not think it was inevitable that the Taliban would take control of Afghanistan, something Biden himself said during July 8 remarks, and that the Afghan security forces should have stepped up to fight the Taliban, especially after nearly 20 years of US training. 

“He thought the Afghan national security forces could step up and fight because we spent 20 years, tens of billions of dollars training them, giving them the best equipment, giving them support of US forces for 20 years and when push came to shove, they decided not to step up and fight for their country,” Sullivan said.

“And so the question facing the President back in April, and again as we've gone forward, is should US men and women be put into the middle of another country's civil war, when their own army won't fight to defend them. And his answer the question was, no. And that is why he stands by this decision,” he added.

Sullivan said the US achieved its objective in Afghanistan which was to hold those who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks accountable, and with that objective achieved, the President was not prepared to have US forces in the country for a third decade. 

“A decade ago we got Osama bin Laden, we degraded al Qaeda, we stopped terrorist attacks against the United States from Afghanistan for 20 years. But what the President was not prepared to do was enter a third decade of conflict, flowing in thousands more troops, which was his only other choice, to fight in the middle of a civil war that the Afghan army wouldn't fight for itself,” Sullivan said. 

Sullivan however, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken did Sunday, admitted that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, specifically of Kabul, happened at an unexpected speed, which continues to shine a spotlight on the intelligence the administration received regarding its decision to withdraw from the country.  

“As we watch the situation unfold, and it's certainly unfolded at unexpected speed, we put that contingency plan in place,” Sullivan said of the administration’s ability to quickly send more troops to Kabul to help with evacuations. 

8:41 a.m. ET, August 16, 2021

US government working overtime to clear special immigrant visas as crisis intensifies in Afghanistan

From Priscilla Alvarez

The Department of Homeland Security and its federal partners worked all hours of the weekend to pull long excel lists of names of special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants to push through systems and get security checks cleared as the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan, according to a DHS official. 

It's a meticulous effort that requires cross-checking.

Many SIV applicants consist of Afghans who worked alongside the US, who will likely be targets under Taliban rule.

8:38 a.m. ET, August 16, 2021

China says it has "maintained contact and communication" with Taliban

China said on Monday that it has “maintained contact and communication with the Afghan Taliban” when asked if Beijing intends to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new representative.

“The Afghan Taliban have expressed on many occasions that they hope to develop good relations with China and look forward to China’s participation in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, and will never allow any forces to use Afghan territory to do things that endanger China. We welcome these,” Hua Chunying, spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry said at a daily press briefing on Monday. 

Hua said China has always “respected the sovereignty of Afghanistan” and has always been “pursuing friendly policies for all Afghan people.”

Hua referred back to China’s State Councilor Wang Yi’s meeting with Taliban leadership in Tianjin in July. 

“We hope that the Afghan Taliban, all parties and ethnic groups in Afghanistan can achieve an inclusive political structure for Afghanistan’s lasting peace,” Hua added.

“China respects the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny and future, and is willing to continue to develop good-neighborly and friendly cooperation with Afghanistan,” she added. “[China would like to] play a constructive role in the peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

1:12 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

US military temporarily suspends air operations at Kabul airport

From CNN's Barbara Starr

US military troops stand guard at Kabul's airport on August 16.
US military troops stand guard at Kabul's airport on August 16. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

The US military has temporarily suspended air operations at Kabul airport while US troops try to clear the airfield of Afghans who have flooded onto the airfield, a US defense official tells CNN.

The suspension is “while we make sure the airfield is secure,” the official said. 

9:11 a.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Iran's president calls Afghanistan withdrawal a US military "defeat" and "opportunity to revive life"

From CNN’s Fred Pleitgen and Adam Pourahmadi

A member of Afghanistan's security forces walks at Bagram Air Base after the last American troops departed the compound in July 2021.
A member of Afghanistan's security forces walks at Bagram Air Base after the last American troops departed the compound in July 2021. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi said the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan is a “military defeat” and should become an “opportunity to revive life” in the country, state-news agency IRNA said.

Raisi was meeting with outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif when he said that Iran “will help restore stability” in Afghanistan and is committed to “neighboring relations by observing the developments in the country,” while also calling on all groups to come to a national agreement, IRNA added.

“The military defeat and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan should become an opportunity to revive life, security, and lasting peace in the country,” he said according to IRNA. 

Zarif also held talks with China's special envoy for Afghanistan Yu Shiang Yung on the latest developments in Afghanistan, including the issue of those displaced from the escalation.

“The issue of the displaced fleeing to neighboring countries is one of the most important and pressing issues, especially considering the difficult conditions of the coronavirus pandemic,” Zarif said, according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry website.

1:13 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

It's been a day since Kabul fell to the Taliban. Here's what you need to know.

People struggle to cross the boundary wall of Kabul's Hamid Karzai international airport on August 16.
People struggle to cross the boundary wall of Kabul's Hamid Karzai international airport on August 16. EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Afghans are adjusting to their new reality after the Taliban took Kabul on Sunday afternoon, sealing their control of the country.

Here’s where things currently stand:

There is chaos at Kabul's airport: Scores of civilians are trying to flee the country, with chaotic scenes continuing to unfold at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai international airport.

Several men or youths were seen on video clinging to the fuselage of a US military C-17 aircraft as it taxied the runway on Monday afternoon, with scores more watching or running alongside the plane, some of whom were underneath the engines. A US military Apache helicopter was also seen swooping low over the tarmac in what appeared to be an effort to disperse the crowds of civilians, desperately trying to leave.

The US military has since suspended air operations while US troops try to clear the airfield of Afghans who have flooded the airfield, a US defense official told CNN. The temporary suspension is “while we make sure the airfield is secure,” the official said. 

Witnesses CNN has spoken to at the airport in Kabul also said they have heard gunshots fired throughout the day. It's unclear if the shots were fired at people or in the air to disperse crowds. 

While flights at the Kabul airport are closed off to civilian aviation, evacuation flights are still being able to take off, data tracking shows.

France and Finland are the latest countries to close their Kabul embassies and evacuate its staff whilst Britain’s first flight carrying UK nationals and embassy staff has now arrived in the UK.

The streets of the capital feel eerie and surreal: In the capital, Taliban fighters are relaxed and jubilant, guarding the US embassy and the presidential palace.

The militant group is now everywhere in the capital, walking the streets of Kabul with ease (and with American weapons in hand.)

CNN spoke with a handful of Taliban fighters in Kabul on Monday morning, who said that their current focus is to ensure a smooth transition of power. But outside the US embassy, some were chanting death to America, with smiles on their faces.

Throughout, the Taliban’s influence on the city is becoming visible, with men proactively painting over images of uncovered women outside of several beauty salons.

The Taliban are signaling what the future will look like: Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told CNN Sunday that the new Taliban government will include non-Taliban Afghans but said it would be “premature” right now to name who the officials will be.

When asked if the Taliban will call on the current Afghan army and police to join Taliban security forces, Shaheen said all those handing over their weapons and joining Taliban forces will be granted amnesty, and that their lives and property would be secure.

Shaheen also said Taliban policies regarding the education for girls and women is clear and that women can continue education from primary to higher education.

The Taliban official said the success of the military offensive was because the group has “roots among the people,” calling it a “popular uprising of the people.” He said diplomats and journalists in Afghanistan can continue to work, including the American embassy. 

Former President Ashraf Ghani is no where to be seen: The Taliban took control of the presidential palace in Kabul yesterday after ousted President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

Ghani was rumored to have fled to neighboring Tajikistan, but in a statement on Monday, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the Afghan president has entered the country or been in its airspace. It is still unclear where Ghani is.

Following his departure on Sunday, Ghani said in a Facebook post that he will “always continue to serve my nation through offering ideas and programs."

“Today, I came across a hard choice; if I should stand to face the armed Taliban who wanted to enter the palace, or leave the dear country that I dedicated my life to protecting and caring for the past twenty years,” he said. "In order to avoid the flood of bloodshed, I thought it was best to get out,” he added

US refugee resettlement agencies are preparing for a large influx of Afghan arrivals: The Department of Defense will potentially relocate up to 30,000 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants to the US, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin have the capability to house these applicants, Kirby said.

1:13 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

People are clinging to US planes taking off from Kabul airport

From CNN’s Anna Coren, Tim Lister, Barbara Starr and Vasco Cotovio

Video has emerged of several men or youths clinging to the fuselage of a US military C-17 aircraft as it taxied at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday. 

There are scores more people watching or following the plane, some of them underneath its engines. Another video shows a US military Apache helicopter swooping low over the tarmac in what appears to be an effort to disperse the crowds.

Witnesses CNN has spoken to at the airport confirmed the chaotic scenes. 

It’s unclear what happened to any of the people who can be seen clinging to the aircraft. 

CNN has reached out to the US military for comment.

Watch video:

1:13 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Bush-era official: Taliban 2.0 are like Taliban 1.0. — but with a better public relations campaign

A Taliban fighter mans a machine gun on top of a vehicle as they patrol along a street in Kabul on Monday, August 16.
A Taliban fighter mans a machine gun on top of a vehicle as they patrol along a street in Kabul on Monday, August 16. Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

The Taliban last controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, until the American and allied forces began an invasion of Afghanistan called Operation Enduring Freedom to stop the them from providing a safe-haven to Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda.

Now, as the Taliban regain stronghold in the country, they say Americans should "trust" them, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told CNN on Sunday.

“They should trust us … When we signed the agreement with them, from the beginning up to now, we have not attacked the American forces, not a single American soldiers have been killed because of our promise and commitment," he said.

However, this is just an example of the Taliban's improved strategic communications campaign, says retired US Army Brigadier Gen. Mark Kimmitt, who served as the former assistant secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

This means that while countries evacuate their citizens and diplomats amid the intensifying crisis, Kimmitt says the Taliban will likely not harm innocent civilians on their way out.

"The Taliban 2.0 are no different from the Taliban 1.0. They just have a much better public relations campaign," he said. "They're not going to start out their new rule with attempting to stop innocent diplomats and innocent civilians from getting out of the country. In fact, the last thing they want to do is start a fight because the best thing for them would be to get everyone out of the country so they can reestablish control."

"They're just masters at deception. They're masters at propaganda. They're masters at psychological warfare," he added. "So let's not fool ourselves by the propaganda. In six months this will be Taliban 1.0, pre-2001."

On whether this crisis could have been avoided, Kimmitt said:

"It's very simple. For all the money we spent, for all the years we've been there, and all the equipment we provided, you can't buy courage and can't buy commitment."

1:13 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

"Surreal scenes" are playing out across the streets of Kabul as the capital wakes up a new reality

From Clarissa Ward and Brent Swails in Kabul

It’s a sight that many Kabul residents thought would never come: Taliban fighters, relaxed and jubilant, standing outside the US embassy and presidential palace.

Eerie, bizarre and surreal scenes are unfolding across the Afghan capital on Monday, which fell to the militant group in just a matter of hours the day before. 

The Taliban are now omnipresent, walking the streets with ease – and with American weapons in tow. CNN spoke with a handful of self-assured Taliban fighters in Kabul on Monday morning, who said that their current focus is to ensure a smooth transition of power. They said they are there to provide security and to ensure there is no looting or criminality.

Yet outside the embassy, some were chanting death to America -- with smiles on their faces.

Taliban fighters stand guard along a street near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on August 16.
Taliban fighters stand guard along a street near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on August 16. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Across the city, the Taliban’s influence on the city has already become visible, with men proactively painting over images of uncovered women outside of several beauty salons. Still, several others had not yet been painted over yet.

CNN asked the Taliban fighters whether they will ban smoking, or make men grow their beards, as they did during their previous five-year-rule.

The Taliban fighters said that nothing will be implemented drastically or immediately, but that Afghans are Muslim people and want to live under Muslim law.

How society will fare under their leadership however, feels bleak to many, especially women and girls. Women’s rights have advanced over the last 20 years across the country. 

But overnight, women who have previously had some level of bodily autonomy have been told the only way to ensure they won’t have any problems with the Taliban is to cover up.

One Taliban fighter said female journalists would still be able to practice their profession as long as they adhered to these rules. Female journalists, he said, will be expected to wear the niqab, and should not engage with men outside of their family.

Outside of the palace, Kabul residents rushed to talk to the CNN team, with many struggling to process the dizzying speed of the capital’s fall.

One man said he felt numb.

“Actually, I feel nothing right now,” he said. “We want peace. We are tired of this ongoing war which is imposed by foreign countries on us for the last 45 years. So that’s why all Afghans are tired.”

He is unsure of what the future holds. 

“You know I cannot predict even in seconds right now and I can’t predict even minutes right now. So that’s why I don’t know what will happen tomorrow and what will happen after,” he said.