August 17, 2021, Afghanistan-Taliban news

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

Updated 12:02 AM ET, Wed August 18, 2021
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9:42 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar returning to Afghanistan, source tells CNN

From CNN's Vasco Cotovio

(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Taliban co-founder and deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is returning to Afghanistan, a Taliban source with knowledge of his movements told CNN on Tuesday.

“Mullah Baradar with a number of high-ranking Taliban officials left Doha to Kandahar province of Afghanistan,” the source said, without providing additional details.

The deputy leader and co-founder of the Taliban movement hasn’t set foot in Afghanistan in 20 years. He currently heads the Taliban’s political bureau.

In 2010 he was arrested in neighboring Pakistan by the country’s security forces and released in 2018 when the US intensified efforts to leave Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump and Baradar, who was the Taliban's chief negotiator, spoke by telephone last year, after the US and Taliban signed a historic agreement in Qatar in March 2020. Trump called it a good conversation.

"The relationship is very good that I have with the mullah," Trump said.

"They want to cease the violence, they'd like to cease violence also."

Baradar also met with China’s Foreign Minister, in Tianjin China in July.

10:25 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Lawmaker who voted against the Afghanistan war in 2001 wants Congress to check President's use of troops

From CNN's Elise Hammond

Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, who was the only member of Congress who voted against the war in Afghanistan in 2001, said the country needs to learn from its mistakes and rebalance who controls diplomacy, development and defense moving forward.

"Congress has a responsibility to debate and authorize the use of force. We don't give it to presidents just to use in perpetuity and that's what happened," she told CNN on Tuesday. "I knew then that there's no military solution in Afghanistan. You have to understand the history there and so we can't nation-build."

Lee supported President Biden's decision to withdraw troops and said no one expected the Taliban to take over the capital city of Kabul so quickly.

Now, she said it is important to use "all of our tools" to make sure every American and Afghan ally gets out safely.

"This is a very dire situation in many ways, it's an emergency," she said. "We have to use every tool we have to ensure their safety. It has to be orderly," Lee added.

"Our troops did everything we asked them to do. They accomplished their goals and their mission. Why in the world would we allow any president to keep our brave troops in harm's way for this long is mind-boggling," Lee said.

Hear what Rep. Barbara Lee said in 2001:

9:02 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Some Taliban leaders "want to see girls education," UNICEF says

From CNN’s Eleanor Pickston

Some Taliban leaders have said they “want to see girls education,” while in talks with the United Nations Children’s Fund and partner NGOs, UNICEF Chief of Field Operations Mustapha Ben Messaoud said on Tuesday.

The messages from the Taliban are “more or less the same” but with “small differences,” especially in terms of girls’ education, Messaoud told reporters during a UN press briefing.

“There are areas, parts of the country, where they told us they’re waiting for guidance from their leadership, religious and political. In other places they’re actually, they said that they want to see girls’ education and schools up and running," he continued.

Taliban officials have held talks with UNICEF and partner NGOs at a number of UNICEF regional offices in Afghanistan over the past days, according to Messaoud.

Addressing the ability for female aid workers and female Afghan staff to continue in their roles, Messaoud said the Taliban has given “mixed, measured answers” but that UNICEF is “cautiously optimistic.”

At least 11 of UNICEF’s 13 field offices in Afghanistan have remained operational since the Taliban took over the country, with the organization currently delivering in “most places,” yet there continues to be “great need” Massaoud warned. “Half of the population — more than 18 million people, including nearly 10 million children — need humanitarian assistance.”

UNICEF and aid partners are in “ongoing discussions” with the Taliban and are “quite optimistic” about the future relationship, based on discussions held at UNICEF field offices, Messaoud told the briefing. “We have not a single issue with the Taliban in those field offices.”


8:53 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

White House seeks to contain Afghanistan fallout as Biden remains out of public view today

From CNN's Jeff Zeleny 

President Joe Biden walks from the podium after speaking about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Monday, August 16.
President Joe Biden walks from the podium after speaking about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Monday, August 16. (Evan Vucci/AP)

As President Biden receives his national security briefings at Camp David this morning, including updates on evacuation efforts from Kabul, officials at the White House are trying to contain the fallout amid blistering criticism for how the administration was caught so off guard by the swift collapse of the Afghanistan government.

Never in the seven months of Biden’s presidency has the competence of the administration been so intensely questioned, with the President’s defiant and defensive speech on Monday only fueling the concerns, rather than working to allay them.

A senior White House official tells CNN today that “there is no second-guessing of the President’s strategy,” but the official acknowledged that far more had to be done to explain how the crisis escalated and the government was blindsided by the Taliban’s surge. But the official stressed the administration was focused “on looking forward, not looking back.” 

“Yes, our competence is being questioned,” the official told CNN. “The only way to fix that is to stabilize the airport and safely withdraw Americans and our partners to the best of our ability.” 

No changes are expected on the schedule of the President, who remains out of public view today. But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will take questions at an afternoon briefing at 1:30 p.m. ET.

The White House is also reaching out to allies on Capitol Hill – and beyond – to explain their efforts and try to ease their concerns.


2:54 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

EU's "top priority" remains saving lives of Afghans working for delegation

From CNN's Amy Cassidy

The European Union’s "top priority” remains rescuing Afghans working for the EU delegation and member states, the Commission’s lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Peter Stano said Tuesday.  

Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, he said: “We are working very intensively, this is the priority right now for us [...] to save people who are working for the EU delegation. The same goes for the Member States. Their priorities [are] their own citizens, and ensure the safety of the local population who were working for the diplomatic missions of individual Member States. 

“So we are engaged in this. It is an ongoing operation, it's very demanding and challenging and very sensitive operation, and of course due to the security reasons and security considerations we are not sharing any operational details about numbers, whereabouts, the status, this is the top priority right now which is… still ongoing.”

He would not go into details of timelines of evacuations, adding that EU Foreign Affairs chief Josep Borrell — who is meeting with the bloc’s foreign ministers later on Tuesday — has been in touch with his NATO counterparts including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the issue.

Responding to a question on how Afghanistan will now be classified under Taliban rule – for example as a safe, dangerous or developing country — Stano said: “Discussions are taking place at the highest levels” and “the review of all the policies and assessments is ongoing in light of the latest developments in the country.”

Asked if individuals arriving in the EU from Afghanistan in an “irregular way” should be deported, the Commission's Rule of Law spokesperson Christian Wigand said: “We are working on a comprehensive approach to address the current crisis in Afghanistan.”

He continued: “Such an approach will need to include the need to provide safe and legal pathways for vulnerable people, while addressing risks of irregular migration and ensuring the management of our borders. These elements will need to be discussed at political level in the coming days.”


2:54 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

US has resumed air operations and flown hundreds of people in and out of Kabul, Pentagon says

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby speaks during a press briefing on August 16.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby speaks during a press briefing on August 16.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After the chaos and disruptions at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday, US air operations have resumed on Tuesday, however, the military is still working to ensure that the security is sustainable, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.

Over the last 24 hours, the United States has flown in about 1,000 troops into Afghanistan, bringing the total number of troops to 3,500, he told CNN.

At the same time, 700 to 800 individuals have been flown out of Afghanistan, which includes roughly 150 Americans, Kirby said Tuesday.

Once all the troops are in, military crafts could keep flying in and out of the country, he explained.

"Just on the military craft alone, we believe we can get between 5 and 9,000 people out per day. Of course, some of that's weather dependent, obviously security dependent," he said. "That's just the military side. We want the civilian side of the airport to remain open as well, so commercial flights can and are able to get themselves in and out."

Now that the air operations have resumed, Americans present in the country can begin to move to the airport to get a flight out, Kirby said.

The Pentagon press secretary was not able to give specific numbers for how many Americans may be present in the country, looking for a flight out, or how many Afghans may be eligible for withdrawal.

However, he emphasized that the US is committed to the Afghan applicants and their families. "We know we have an obligation to them," he said.

The military's focus will remain on the airport, and Kirby said he would not want to "set the expectation that we are equipped and able to go out into the countryside and physically move people into Kabul."

8:07 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Some Afghan women journalists are reporting from the streets of Kabul while others flee for their safety

Afghan news network TOLO news has applauded the work of women journalists who are continuing to report under Taliban-rule.

Saad Mohseni, Director of Moby Media Group, TOLO's parent company, posted images of some of their journalists in action in a message on Twitter Tuesday, with the caption: “Our brave female journalists out and about in Kabul this morning."

Earlier Tuesday, a female TOLO journalist, Beheshta Arghand, interviewed senior Taliban representative Abdul Haq Hammad on air – an interview that would have been unimaginable when the militant group last ruled Afghanistan two decades ago. Then, women were barred from public life and were only allowed outside when fully covered in a burqa, and escorted by a male chaperone.

The Taliban says it has changed, promising that women will retain certain rights under their renewed leadership. But many fear a return to the dark days, with some female journalists having already left the country in the wake of the Taliban’s resurgence.

On Monday, CNN’s Clarissa Ward in Kabul reported that Afghan journalists are "absolutely petrified, particularly women journalists.” They know that they are “big targets because they have been so outspoken against the Taliban in the past,” she said.

Ward spoke with Taliban fighters on Monday who told her that female journalists would still be able to practice their profession as long as they adhered to their rules. Female journalists, he said, will be expected to wear the niqab, and should not engage with men outside of their family.

Fear running high: On Sunday the homes of two unidentified female journalists were visited by Taliban fighters, a contact of the women told CNN Monday, adding that both women were severely shaken psychologically.

Several female journalists are said to have received threatening calls from the Taliban, with the calls increasing over recent days, the source added. One prominent female journalist in Kabul said she had received a threatening call from the Taliban, telling her they “will come soon.”

An April Human Rights Watch report found that Taliban forces have deliberately targeted journalists and other media workers, including women journalists, especially those who appear on television and radio.

“Female reporters may be targeted not only for issues they cover but also for challenging perceived social norms prohibiting women from being in a public role and working outside the home,” the report said, adding that a "recent wave of violent attacks has driven several prominent women journalists to give up their profession or leave Afghanistan altogether."

7:44 a.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Facebook reiterates ban on Taliban content on its platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram

From CNN’s Diksha Madhok in Hong Kong

Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 16.
Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 16. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Facebook has reiterated its ban on accounts praising, supporting or representing the Taliban.

In a statement Tuesday, Facebook underscored its Dangerous Organizations policies, which block accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban.

“The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law, and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organization policies,” Facebook stated.

The ban also covers Facebook’s WhatsApp and Instagram platforms.

The company said it employs a “dedicated team of Afghanistan experts, who are native Dari and Pashto speakers, and have knowledge of local context.” This team is tasked with removing contravening material.

“Regardless of who holds power, we will take the appropriate action against accounts and content that breaks our rules,” Facebook stated. 

The Taliban have not been officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US. However, the group was placed on a US Treasury Department list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists and a Specially Designated Nationals list.

2:55 p.m. ET, August 17, 2021

Here’s what’s happening at Kabul airport today

In this photo from Stefano Pontecorvo, the NATO Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan, airplanes are seen at the Kabul International Airport on August 17.
In this photo from Stefano Pontecorvo, the NATO Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan, airplanes are seen at the Kabul International Airport on August 17. (Courtesy Stefano Pontecorvo)

Chaos unfolded at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport yesterday, with scores of people rushing the runway in an attempt to flee the country.

Here's how things currently stand:

Who controls what: The Taliban controls access roads to Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport, meaning that anyone wishing to gain entry to the airport’s main gates will have to pass their checks. Taliban forces are continuing to try to control crowds trying to enter.

The US still controls the military side of the airport, which was fenced off yesterday afternoon with a layer of razor wire, guarded by US military personnel after scenes of pandemonium ensued. 

On Monday afternoon, crowds of people ran onto the tarmac in desperation, including some who climbed onto US military aircraft as it was preparing to take off. 

US forces at Kabul airport killed 2 armed men on Monday after they fired on US troops, one witness told CNN. The witness also said a third fighter was injured in the confrontation.

Commercial flights aren't operating: Commercial flights were canceled out the airport on Monday, and remain so. Evacuation flights organized by foreign governments however are still taking off.

US President Joe Biden said on Monday that he knows that there are “concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner.”

“Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. And part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence,” he said.

Biden added that US troops will continue to undertake their mission and that the Taliban will be met with “devastating force if necessary," if they seek to disrupt it.

On Tuesday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that the UK had sent in 600 extra personnel to assist with stability on the ground, especially around the evacuation efforts. He added that over the next 24 hours, 350 British and Afghan nationals who worked for the UK are expected to be evacuated from Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile, the German military has come under criticism for only rescuing seven people from Kabul on its first evacuation flight from Afghanistan. A German army spokesperson said that there were not any more people around to evacuate when they landed, given that they had arrived at night and that the US was already in control of the airport.

Disruption at the airport is delaying vital health supplies: WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević said on Tuesday that Afghanistan's health system has already been facing shortages of essential medical supplies and equipment in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The current situation at the airport is compounding that crisis, he said, with the disruption delaying urgently needed health supplies, including Covid-19 and polio vaccines.