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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11:54 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

"I thought at one point that this is the end and I will die," student says of her experience at Kabul airport

From CNN's Sandi Sidhu

Like hundreds of other Kabul residents, Aisha Ahmad scurried to the Hamid Karzi International Airport on Monday, hoping to catch a flight out of the country as it became apparent the government would fall to the Taliban.

Ahmad did not make it out. On Twitter, she asked for help from a third country, only to receive death threats, she said.

The 22-year-old university student recounted her experience to CNN and explained why she's fearful for the future.

Her experience at the airport: Ahmad said she got a call from a friend in the United States and was told that people were being ferried out of Afghanistan on military flights. She didn't believe it at first, but when a second friend called and said the same thing, she thought they might both be right.

The streets were quiet as she ran to the airport, except for the occasional crackle of gunshots. People were calm and looked curious.

But at the airport, Ahmad said "there were thousands of people, including many without passports and little security. She got stuck.

"The crowds were pushed by police," she said. "Kids and women were on the ground."

Ahmad said it felt like "doomsday."

"I thought at one point that this is the end and I will die," she said.

Though she did not manage to make it out of Kabul, she escaped the airport with only scrapes and bruises.

Will she go back to school: Taliban spokesman and leaders have said that they plan to run an "inclusive Islamic government" and allow women and girls to go to school. Many Afghans are deeply skeptical of those claims because it's a major departure from the fundamentalist, totalitarian tendencies that marked the group's time in power in the 1990s.

"Some people say the Taliban have changed, others say that they have not," Ahmad said. "To be honest now I do not believe the Taliban."

Taliban leaders have said that people should continue to go about their day-to-day lives for now, including women who go to school. Ahmad said based on what she sees on TV, she thinks she can go back to school but isn't exactly sure.

She fears that she will not be able to finish her university education and worries that things will start getting harder for women in the days and weeks ahead

"Definitely there will be restrictions for women, but we do not know how much," Ahmad said.

"People are not much outside, and they do not know how their daily activity will be when life is back to normal. Will they force stores to close during prayer time? Will there be punishment for not going to the mosque, will they force people to go? ... No one knows," she said.

11:47 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Former US President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush say their "hearts are heavy" after watching "tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan"

(Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images/FILE)
(Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images/FILE)

Former US President George W. Bush, the first American President to preside over the war in Afghanistan, and first lady Laura Bush said their "hearts are heavy" after watching fall of the Afghan government and the Taliban's resurgence.

The couple said they and their team at the George W. Bush Presidential Center "stand ready as Americans to lend our support and assistance in this time of need."

Operation Enduring Freedom, the official name of the campaign targeting those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, began on October 7, 2001, when US and British forces began striking al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Though the Taliban regime fell quickly, the war continued for the next 20 years, becoming the longest war in US history.

Read the Bush's statement here:

Laura and I have been watching the tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan with deep sadness. Our hearts are heavy for both the Afghan people who have suffered so much and for the Americans and NATO allies who have sacrificed so much.
The Afghans now at the greatest risk are the same ones who have been on the forefront of progress inside their nation. President Biden has promised to evacuate these Afghans, along with American citizens and our allies. The United States government has the legal authority to cut the red tape for refugees during urgent humanitarian crises. And we have the responsibility and the resources to secure safe passage for them now, without bureaucratic delay. Our most stalwart allies, along with private NGOs, are ready to help.
Laura and I are confident that the evacuation efforts will be effective because they are being carried out by the remarkable men and women of the United States Armed Forces, diplomatic corps, and intelligence community. And we want to speak to them directly, along with the veterans who have served in Afghanistan.
Many of you deal with wounds of war, both visible and invisible. And some of your brothers and sisters in arms made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror. Each day, we have been humbled by your commitment and your courage. You took out a brutal enemy and denied Al Qaeda a safe haven while building schools, sending supplies, and providing medical care. You kept America safe from further terror attacks, provided two decades of security and opportunity for millions, and made America proud. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts and will always honor your contributions.  
In times like these, it can be hard to remain optimistic. Laura and I will steadfastly remain so. Like our country, Afghanistan is also made up of resilient, vibrant people. Nearly 65 percent of the population is under twenty-five years old. The choices they will make for opportunity, education, and liberty will also determine Afghanistan’s future. As Dr. Sakena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute of Learning, which has opened schools for girls and women around the nation, wrote this week: “While we are afraid, we are not defeated.” She added, “Ideas do not disappear so easily. One cannot kill whispers on the wind. The Taliban cannot crush a dream. We will prevail, even if it takes longer than we wanted it to.”  
Laura and I, along with the team at the Bush Center, stand ready as Americans to lend our support and assistance in this time of need. Let us all resolve to be united in saving lives and praying for the people of Afghanistan.

11:11 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Former George W. Bush strategist says Biden will likely survive the crisis in Afghanistan politically

Matthew Dowd
Matthew Dowd (CNN)

Matthew Dowd, a former strategist for President George W. Bush, said that though the Taliban's takeover is tragic, the American public is "exhausted" after 20 years of war in Afghanistan.

A poll from ABC News and Ipsos conducted on July 23 and 24 found that 55% of Americans approved of President Joe Biden's handling of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, while 41% disapproved.

Dowd told CNN's Don Lemon he believes the American public still wants to see the military out of Afghanistan. Though the horrific pictures coming out of the country may open Biden up to scrutiny and criticism in the short-term, he does not think it will be an issue "in a potential reelection for him, or even in the midterms."

"The American public wanted us out of there, and we're getting out of there, actually way later than the American public wanted us (to)."

10:08 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

China says it is willing to work with the US on Afghanistan

China is willing to work with the US for a “soft landing of the Afghan issue” to prevent the country from becoming a humanitarian disaster and breeding ground for terrorism, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Beijing said in a statement.

The statement from China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the two countries should find places to cooperate but warned that the United States could not count on China’s support and cooperation while impeding China’s “legitimate rights and interest.”

The State Department said the two diplomats discussed "the security situation and our respective efforts to bring US and PRC citizens to safety."

9:57 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Pompeo criticizes Biden administration's Afghanistan policy

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the situation in an Afghanistan in an interview with CNN affiliate KWCH, saying that the "deterrence model" under former President Donald Trump's administration worked.

Here's what Pompeo said:

“We were working hard to put an orderly transition in place, to have the Afghans have peace and reconciliation. I met with the Taliban to deliver that. We made clear to the Taliban if they didn’t honor their commitments, we would rain holy heck on them. And they knew that, and that deterrence model helped. We went from over 10,000 down to 2,500 (troops). We didn’t have a single American killed for over a year and a half. That was the fact -- that we had real American leadership, and I regret we’re not in that place today.”
8:49 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Inside Biden's defiant Afghanistan response

From CNN's Kevin Liptak, Jeff Zeleny and Kaitlan Collins in Washington

By the time images of desperate Afghans clinging to American warplanes began emerging from Kabul on Monday morning, President Joe Biden had conceded to aides he had little choice but to interrupt his stay at Camp David to return to the White House.

He had been facing calls, even from his political allies, to speak out on the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. His top aides had begun publicly admitting they were caught off guard by the speed with which the Afghan military would collapse but wanted the situation in Kabul to stabilize before Biden addressed the nation. And his own words from earlier this summer describing a Taliban takeover as "unlikely" were aggravating the sense of a commander-in-chief caught badly off guard.

During briefings, the President quizzed his team about how they could have misjudged the time it would take for the Afghan army to collapse, according to people familiar with the matter. He has also voiced dismay at the failure of Ashraf Ghani, the ousted Afghan president who fled the country on Sunday, to adhere to a plan he laid out in the Oval Office in June to prevent the Taliban from taking over major cities.

Throughout the weekend, Biden had remained at the presidential retreat, receiving briefings on screens or over the phone while sitting alone at conference table. Advisers huddled separately to discuss when and how he should address the situation. When he returned to the White House midday Monday, many of his aides assumed he would at least spend the night.

Yet almost as soon as Biden touched down in Washington, word went out that his stay at the executive mansion would be brief. After his 18-minute speech, Biden quickly decamped again for the mountains.

As advisers worked feverishly on Monday to calibrate the President's speech, there was far less worry about the predictable criticism from Republicans than about how Biden's own words and calculations over the last several months had been so wrong. The episode puts into sharp relief two of Biden's most marked political traits: A stubborn defensive streak and a fierce certainty in his decision-making that allows little room for second-guessing.

Those traits led to an air of defiance hanging over the White House on Monday, but remarkable images of the chaos in Kabul -- which the President called "gut wrenching" -- stood as irrefutable evidence of failure. The task of what to do next will be left to Biden.

Read more:

7:16 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

How US veterans and their families are reacting to the events unfolding in Afghanistan 

From CNN's Dakin Andone

There's a wide range of opinions among Afghanistan war veterans about the US withdrawal, said Tom Porter, an Afghanistan veteran and the executive vice president for government relations at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). Stressing he doesn't speak for everyone, Porter said some veterans feel the withdrawal was overdue while others believe the United States should have stayed to prevent any violence.

"But the vast majority of veterans I'm hearing from have great concern for the veterans that have sacrificed so much and the families that are Gold Star families that lost their sons and their husbands and their fathers and mothers and other family members over the last 20 years," Porter said.

"They are wondering, was their loved ones' service worth it?"

The images coming out of Afghanistan are quickly building a narrative, he said, that is going to shape veterans' views about the past 20 years.

"That's going to color the way veterans and service members think about the end of their service, the result of their service," Porter said. "Everybody in the community's going to be looking to see, how is history going to remember what we did over there?"

Gerald Keen, who served in Afghanistan, told CNN's Pamela Brown he knew this time would come. But he disagrees with the way the withdrawal has unfolded, believing American soldiers should not be sent back to do a job he feels should have been done prior to the closure of Bagram Airfield.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the deployment of 1,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, a defense official told CNN on Sunday, for a total of 6,000 US troops expected to be in country.

"Now we've got to send soldiers back in harm's way to help evacuate the embassies and these interpreters who fought side by side with us every day," Keen said.

Much of veterans' anxiety is tied to the effort of getting out those who helped the United States at risk to their families' lives, said Jeremy Butler, IAVA's chief executive.

The US State Department has said there are some 20,000 Afghans who have applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to be able to come to the United States. As of Friday, 1,200 Afghans and their families had been evacuated to America as part of the administration's "Operation Allies Refuge," and administration officials said they would accelerate efforts to get the applicants and their families out of Afghanistan and to the United States or a third country.

Even with the accelerated pace of SIV relocation, there are tens of thousands of other Afghans who worked alongside the United States who either are stuck in the pipeline or do not qualify for the program and will need to pursue other ways out, such as the administration's new Afghan refugee designation.

Read the full story here.

6:31 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

Pentagon says they did plan for "the possibility that the Taliban would make significant gains"

From CNN's Mike Conte and Barbara Starr

The Pentagon said they “absolutely” did plan for “the possibility that the Taliban would make significant gains throughout the country,” but press secretary John Kirby declined to say whether President Biden was briefed. 

“We won't speak to advice and counsel that our leaders give to the President. What I can tell you is that in the planning that we've done and in the exercises and drills we ran, we certainly ran them against the possibility that the Taliban would make significant gains throughout the country, yes, absolutely," Kirby told reporters.

“One of the things that we couldn't anticipate and didn't anticipate was the degree to which Afghan forces capitulated sometimes without a fight,” he continued.

Kirby would not say if the Department of Defense informed Biden, who said he did not see that happening, of the possibility of a swift Taliban takeover.

He further said that the Pentagon had anticipated possibly needing a surge of troops to protect the airport in Kabul, which is what let to them being able to deploy forces more quickly.

“I think when you look at the images out of Kabul that would have been difficult for anybody to predict,” said Kirby “Now, could we have predicted every single scenario and every single breach around the perimeter of the airport with only a couple of thousand troops on the ground? Absolutely you know there are changes that happen.”

5:49 p.m. ET, August 16, 2021

"There has not been a formal transfer of power" in Afghanistan, State Department spokesperson says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday said “there has not been a formal transfer of power” from the Afghan government to the Taliban following the capitulation of former President Ashraf Ghani, and said the US was working with the international community as to who the US recognizes as the leader of Afghanistan.

Price did not rule out US recognition of a Taliban government, saying that it would be dependent upon their actions.

“Ultimately when it comes to our posture towards any future government in Afghanistan, it will depend upon the actions of that government, it will depend upon the actions of the Taliban. We are watching closely,” he said at a department briefing.

“The fact is that a future Afghan government that upholds the basic rights of its people, that doesn’t harbor terrorists and that protects the basic rights of its people, including the basic fundamental rights of half of its population, its women and girls, that is a government that we would be able to work with,” he said.

“The converse is also true. We’re not going to support a government that does not do that, a government that disregards, the guarantees enshrined in basic documents like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, that is not a government that the United States would be able to work with. That itself is important,” Price said, also noting a UN Security Council statement calling for “the establishment, through inclusive negotiations, of a new government that is united, inclusive and representative – including with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women.”

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen claimed in a CNN interview Monday that the Taliban would allow the education of women and girls, but the militant group has a history of sharp repression of the rights of women and minorities.

State Department officials had previously said the US would not recognize a government that came to power by force.