The latest on Afghanistan as the Taliban take charge

By Brad Lendon, Jessie Yeung, Kara Fox, Aditi Sangal, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 8:27 PM ET, Fri August 20, 2021
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11:48 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Here's a look at the Kabul airport perimeter and the journey Afghans must make to get inside 

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler, Clarissa Ward, Brent Swails and Kara Fox

Chaotic scenes played out around Kabul airport again on Friday as thousands of people desperate to leave Afghanistan tried to get on one of the evacuation flights.

In the days since the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban, the United States has scrambled to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport and evacuate US citizens and vulnerable Afghans amid the extremely fluid situation on the ground.

Military and diplomatic efforts are underway to press the Taliban to ensure safe passage for those trying to reach the airport, but for now the route there is fraught with uncertainty for Afghans looking to flee, as they must first make their way through often violent and arbitrary Taliban checks.

The US Embassy in Kabul has advised Americans that it "cannot ensure safe passage to the airport," and Defense and State Department officials have said they do not have the capacity to retrieve US citizens from Kabul and bring them to the airport for evacuation flights.

Those who are able to reach the airport perimeter have reported waiting hours to enter and the US Embassy advised in a recent security alert that "due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice."

"Please use your best judgment and attempt to enter the airport at any gate that is open," it said.

Afghans who make it through the gates are then subjected to further scrutiny by Afghan special forces, who are facing accusations of similar brutality.

Here's a look at a map of the Kabul airport and the areas controlled by the Taliban:

11:52 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Military cargo flight, captured in photo packed with Afghans, flew even more people than originally reported

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

The US military cargo plane, whose hold filled with Afghans evacuating their country was captured in a now famous photo, flew more than 800 people on board – far more than originally confirmed by the Air Force, according to the crew who flew the mission.

The crew of a C-17 US military cargo plane flew 823 people out of Kabul on an evacuation flight on Aug. 15, the crew said in an interview Friday on CNN’s New Day. It was previously believed that the plane carried 640 people on it.

The photo of Afghans sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, packed into the hold, went viral after it was published by Defense One.

The massive number of people is a record to fly on the US Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III, a military plane that can be used to carry both cargo and passengers when needed, US Air Force spokesperson Hope Cronin said. The C-17 has been in operation for almost three decades. 

“Our 640 number was a little underestimated, we actually carried 823 out,” Technical Sergeant Justin Triola, one of the plane’s crew members, said.

A radio transmission of the crew with air traffic control highlights how extraordinary the flight was. When the pilot informed air traffic control of how many people were on board, the response was “holy hell.”

When the plane is being used to transport passengers, there are several configurations the plane’s crew can use to transport different numbers of people, ranging from 10 to 336 people at a time.

It is always at the discretion of the aircraft commander to determine what they can transport at any given time, Cronin said. 

“While there are a range of standard configurations for C-17 passenger loads, this was a dynamic situation that required a dynamic solution,” Cronin said.

The previous record of people flown on a C-17 was 670 people that were flown out by the US Air Force after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013. 

Lieutenant Colonel and C-17 Aircraft Commander Eric Kut, who authorized the mission to fly those people to safety, said they are “trained to handle that, to max perform that aircraft.”

Crew members of the C-17 that flew the 823 people to safety include Kut, Triola, Airman First Class Nicolas Baron, Captain Cory Jackson, First Lieutenant Mark Lawson, Staff Sergeant Derek Laurent and Senior Airman Richard Johnson. 

“We have women and children and people’s lives at stake, it’s not about capacity, or rules and regulations, it’s about the training and the directives that we were able to handle to make sure that we could safely and effectively get that many people out and max perform those efforts,” Kut said.

Triola said the people on board the plane were “definitely anxious to get out of the area, and we were happy to accommodate them.” 

“They were definitely excited once we were airborne,” he added.

2:51 p.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Russian President Putin says outside forces must not impose their views on Afghanistan

From CNN's Zahra Ullah and Anna Chernova in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a news conference on Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that "the political reality" is that the Taliban controls most of Afghanistan, and outside forces must not impose their views on the country.

"The Taliban movement today controls almost the entire territory of the country, including the capital. This is the political reality, and one must proceed from these realities, preventing the collapse of the Afghan state," Putin said.

"It is necessary to stop the irresponsible policy of imposing someone else's values ​​from the outside, the desire to build democracy from outside according to other people's patterns, without taking into account any historical, cultural or religious peculiarities. Completely ignoring the traditions by which other peoples live," he continued.

"We know Afghanistan well, we know how this country is organized and how counterproductive it is to try to impose unusual forms of government and social life on it. Any such social and political experiments have not yet been successful and only lead to the destruction of the state, the degradation of their political and social systems," Putin said.

"At the same time, we see that the Taliban have already announced the end of hostilities, have begun to establish public safety for local residents, foreign diplomatic missions," he added.

Putin also said it is important to prevent the "penetration of terrorists" "disguised as refugees" into countries near Afghanistan.

"In our opinion, it is especially important now to prevent the penetration of terrorists of all stripes into the territory of states adjacent to Afghanistan, including disguised as refugees," Putin said. 

How the Taliban's takeover has unfolded so far: The Taliban have moved swiftly to crush early opposition to their rule across Afghanistan, clashing with protesters and forcing an entire city to stay inside, as a frantic rush to escape the country intensifies at Kabul's international airport.

A curfew was to be imposed "for an indefinite time" over the entire southeastern Afghan city of Khost on Thursday, multiple Taliban sources told CNN on Wednesday, after videos emerged on social media purporting to show hundreds of people there demonstrating against the militant group's seizure of power.

The rapid shutdown of opposition undermines the Taliban's repeated attempts to convince international media and observers that their rule will be more restrained and inclusive than it was two decades ago.

CNN's Rob Picheta, Saleem Mehsud and Tim Lister contributed reporting to this post. 

11:24 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Al Qaeda will "absolutely" return in Afghanistan, Clapper says

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Al Qaeda will “absolutely” reconstitute itself in Afghanistan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says. 

“I think it’s a question of time, and it’s going to be sooner rather than later, because I think a lot of terrorists who fled Afghanistan now will return,“ Clapper said to CNN’s Jim Sciutto.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for the intelligence community from over the horizon without on-the-ground presence to watch this,” he added. 

He says the stance of Pakistan will also be “key to all this.”  

Clapper also said that while intelligence experts did not predict the downfall of the Afghan government so quickly, officials were aware of serious issues. 

“If you look at this historically, there has always been concern about how strong their government is. Now did the intelligence community call it right and say in 11 days the government is going to collapse? Certainly not. But certainly there was a general awareness of the problematic nature of a government and the military in Afghanistan,” he said. 

11:23 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Biden will deliver remarks on US military evacuations as chaos continues at Kabul airport

From CNN's Kate Sullivan

President Biden will deliver remarks later today about the ongoing US military evacuations of American citizens and vulnerable Afghans as chaos ensues at and around Kabul's international airport. He is set to speak at 1 p.m. ET.

The President's speech will focus on the evacuation of American citizens and their families, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and their families and vulnerable Afghans, the White House says. It is unclear whether the President will take questions.

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told CNN earlier on Friday that the White House does not have a precise number of Americans who are still in Afghanistan, saying the administration is still trying to account for Americans who may have left the country prior to August 14 without notifying the US embassy.

Prior to Biden's remarks, the President and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with their national security team in the Situation Room to hear intelligence, security and diplomatic updates on the situation in Afghanistan, according to the White House.

What things look like on the ground in Kabul: Afghans in the capital city are battling massive crowds and violence to make it to the airport gates, and have to wait hours to enter once they've arrived.

Tents are needed for the thousands of Afghans standing out in the blazing sun for hours at Kabul airport, CNN's Clarissa Ward reports. Mothers of children are particularly struggling in the sweltering heat. CNN has met people at the airport who have been waiting there for two days

The US Embassy warned Friday morning of continuing safety concerns over getting to the Kabul airport, and said that — due to large crowds and security worries — "gates may open or close without notice."

Read more about Biden's remarks today here.

11:18 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Evacuations from Afghanistan still "immediate priority" for NATO, chief says

From CNN's Nada Bashir

The evacuation of people from allied countries, as well as Afghan nationals, from Afghanistan remains an “immediate priority” for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday. 

“NATO has worked around the clock to maintain operations at Kabul international airport, allowing thousands of people to leave,” Stoltenberg said during a news conference in Brussels. 

“The situation remains very difficult and unpredictable,” he added. 

In an earlier statement issued by NATO foreign ministers, the organization highlighted NATO’s commitment to the safe evacuation of at-risk Afghan nationals — in particular, those who have assisted NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan. 

“We call on those in positions of authority in Afghanistan to respect and facilitate their safe and orderly departure, including through Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul," the statement said.

“As long as evacuation operations continue, we will maintain our close operational coordination through Allied military means at Hamid Karzai International Airport,” the statement added. 

11:14 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

NATO chief calls for "thorough assessment" of group's engagement in Afghanistan

From CNN's Nada Bashir

The speed at which the Taliban were able to seize control of Afghanistan’s political and military infrastructure was “not anticipated,” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday, adding that a “thorough assessment” of NATO’s past engagement in the country will be conducted. 

“There are hard questions that we need to ask ourselves over our engagement in Afghanistan. We were clear-eyed about the risks of withdrawing our troops, but the speed of the collapse of the Afghan political and military leadership and armed forces was not anticipated,” Stoltenberg said during a press conference in Brussels. 

“There are many lessons to be learned and I intend to conduct a thorough assessment of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan,” he added. 

Stoltenberg later stressed that the “eyes of the world are on Afghanistan,” calling on the Taliban to put an end to violence and to uphold the fundamental rights of all Afghans. 

“We expect the Taliban to uphold their commitments and to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism,” Stoltenberg added.

11:27 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

US air base in Germany preparing to receive evacuees from Afghanistan

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt

Planes stand on the tarmac at Ramstein Air Base in July 2020.
Planes stand on the tarmac at Ramstein Air Base in July 2020. Alex Kraus/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Ramstein Air Base, the US air base in Germany's federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate in the southwest corner of Germany, is preparing to receive evacuees from Afghanistan, Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Friday.

''We have agreed with the U.S. that Ramstein Air Base in particular can be used temporarily for the transit of people seeking protection from Afghanistan to the United States,” the statement reads.

''We are in agreement with all our partners on the ground that no seat on our aircraft should remain empty. In the future, therefore, Germans or persons designated by us will be evacuated on U.S. flights to Ramstein in addition to Bundeswehr aircraft,'' the statement went on to say, adding that ''in the same way, we will fly nationals of a wide variety of nations out of Kabul on our own evacuation flights. ''

Maas said that “evacuating as many people from Kabul as possible under the given, very difficult circumstances.'' Germany is working closely with international partners to achieve this, Maas said.

''This increases our joint transport capacities and relieves the air bridge between Kabul and Tashkent," he continued.

10:15 a.m. ET, August 20, 2021

Tents needed for thousands of Afghans standing in the blazing sun for hours at Kabul airport

From CNN's Clarissa Ward

CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward is on the ground in Kabul airport where Afghans continue to wait patiently in hope of an imminent escape. 

She says tents are needed for the thousands of Afghans standing out in the blazing sun for hours at Kabul airport. Mothers of children are particularly struggling in the sweltering heat, continuing to line up in their droves throughout the airfield, Ward reported.

CNN has met people at the airport who have been waiting there for two days. And those waiting must navigate risks at every turn, be it the violent screening of the Taliban forces at the first perimeter or the crushes of people trying to push through.

One British soldier who has completed two tours in Helmand told CNN that the trauma of this experience in Kabul far outweighs that of his previous tours. 

Watch Clarissa Ward's report below: