KABUL (Reuters)—Thousands of civilians desperate to flee Afghanistan thronged Kabul airport on Monday after the Taliban seized the capital, prompting the U.S. military to suspend evacuations as the United States came under mounting criticism at home over its pullout.
Crowds converged on the airport seeking to escape, including some clinging to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied on the runway, according to footage posted by a media company. Five people were killed in the chaos.
The Taliban's rapid conquest of Kabul follows the U.S. withdrawal of troops after 20 years of war that cost billions of dollars.
President Joe Biden defended his decision to pull out, ending the United States' longest war, arguing that Afghan forces had to fight back against the Islamist Taliban.
But the speed at which Afghan cities fell in just days and the likely crackdowns on freedom of speech and women's rights gained in 20 years have sparked angry criticism.
"If President Biden truly has no regrets about his decision to withdraw, then he is disconnected from reality when it comes to Afghanistan," a Twitter post from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham read.
Republican Representative Jim Banks, a member of the House armed services committee, said on Fox News that Biden should explain his actions to the American people.
"What was more shocking to me than the images coming out of Afghanistan is what's happening right here at home," he said.
"We have never seen an American leader abdicate his responsibilities and leadership like Joe Biden has. He's in hiding. The lights are on at the White House, but nobody's home. Where is Joe Biden?"
Jim Messina, a White House deputy chief of staff under former President Barack Obama, defended Biden's move.
"There's been bipartisan consensus that it was time to get out of Afghanistan, Mike Pompeo, the former Secretary of State, said earlier this month he supported Biden’s plan, and we've been there 20 years. It's America's longest-running war, it is time to get out," he said on Fox.
"Why should American troops be fighting a civil war that Afghan troops this week refused to fight for themselves, it was time to get out."
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.
The United States and other foreign powers have rushed to fly out diplomatic and other staff but the United States temporarily halted all evacuation flights to clear people from the airfield, a U.S. defence official told Reuters.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, did not say how long the pause would last.
It was not immediately clear how the five people died at the airport. A U.S. official said troops had fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight taking U.S diplomats and embassy staff out of the city.
One witness, waiting for a flight out for more than 20 hours, said it was unclear if the five had been shot or killed in a stampede. U.S. officials at the airport were not immediately available for comment.
‘NO ONE SHALL BE HARMED'
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban, said in a message on Twitter that their fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.
"Life, property and honour of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen," he said.
It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.
U.S. officers had long worried that corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied front-line soldiers.
Al Jazeera broadcast footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the presidential palace with dozens of fighters.
Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban's political office, told Al Jazeera TV the form of Afghanistan‘s new government would be made clear soon. He said the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and called for peaceful international relations.
The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women's rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
But many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
"Everyone is worried," a former government employee now in hiding in Kabul said. "They're not targeting people yet but they will, that's the reality. Maybe in two or three weeks, that's why people are fighting to get out now."
Both the United Nations and the United States said last week they had received reports that Taliban fighters were executing surrendering government soldiers.
The Pentagon on Sunday authorized another 1,000 troops to help evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for them, expanding its security presence on the ground to almost 6,000 troops.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said that all embassy personnel, including Ambassador Ross Wilson, had been transferred to Kabul airport.
(Reporting by Kabul and Washington bureaus; Writing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel and Jane Merriman; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)