U.S. anti-missile defences intercepted rockets fired at Kabul’s airport early on Monday, as the United States flew its core diplomats out of Afghanistan in the final hours of its chaotic withdrawal.
U.S. troops are due to pull out of Kabul by Tuesday, after they and their allies mounted the biggest air evacuation in history, bringing 114,000 of their own citizens and Afghans who helped them over 20 years of war.
Two U.S. officials said the “core” diplomatic staff had withdrawn on Monday morning. They did not say whether this included top envoy Ross Wilson, expected to be among the last to leave before the final troops themselves.
A U.S. official said initial reports did not indicate any U.S. casualties from as many as five missiles fired on the airport. Islamic State – enemies of both the West and the Taliban – claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.
The rockets followed a massive Islamic State suicide bombing outside the teeming airport gates on Thursday, which killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.
In recent days Washington has warned of more attacks, while carrying out two air strikes against Islamic State targets, including one on Sunday it said thwarted an attempted suicide bombing by blowing up a car packed with explosives.
Tuesday’s deadline for all troops to leave was ordered by President Joe Biden, fulfilling an agreement reached with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump to end Washington’s longest war.
But having failed to anticipate that the Taliban would so quickly conquer the country, Washington and its NATO allies were forced into a hasty evacuation. They will leave behind thousands of Afghans who helped Western countries and might have qualified for evacuation but did not make it out in time.
The Taliban, who opressed women and governed violently when last in power 20 years ago, have said they will safeguard rights and not pursue vendettas. They say that once the Americans leave, the country will at last be at peace for the first time in more than 40 years.
But countless Afghans, especially in the cities, fear the militants will again prove as ruthless as before. And the United Nations said the entire country now faces a dire humanitarian crisis, cut off from foreign aid amid a drought, mass displacement and COVID-19.
“The evacuation effort has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and these efforts are praiseworthy,” said UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi.
“But when the airlift and the media frenzy are over, the overwhelming majority of Afghans, some 39 million, will remain inside Afghanistan. They need us – governments, humanitarians, ordinary citizens – to stay with them and stay the course.”
Outside the airport, people described themselves as foresaken by the departing foreign troops.
“We are in danger,” said one woman. “They must show us a way to be saved. We must leave Afghanistan or they must provide a safe place for us.”