Amid Desperation at Kabul Airport, Evacuation Picks Up Pace

Video

transcript

transcript

Biden Details Rescue Effort From Afghanistan

President Biden outlined rescue efforts for Afghanistan nationals and Americans after the Taliban took control of the region. Mr. Biden defended the U.S. decision to withdraw from Afghanistan despite the chaos unfolding in the country.

We paused flights in Kabul a few hours this morning to make sure we could process the arriving evacuees at the transit points, but our commander in Kabul has already given the order for outbound flights to resume. Even with the pause, we moved out 5,700 evacuees yesterday. Make no mistake, this evacuation mission is dangerous and involves risks to our armed forces, and it’s being conducted under difficult circumstances. I cannot promise what the final outcome will be or what it will be that it will be without risk of loss. But as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary. And as an American, I offer my gratitude to the brave men and women of the U.S. armed forces that are carrying out this mission. They’re incredible, and as we continue to work the logistics of evacuation, we’re in constant contact with the Taliban, working to ensure civilians have safe passage to the airport. We’re particularly focused on our engagements, on making sure every American who wants to leave can get to the airport. Where we have been seeing challenges of Americans — for Americans — we have thus far been able to resolve them. It’s time to end this war. The estimates of the cost of this war over the last 20 years range from a minimum of $1 trillion to a think tank at one of the universities $2 trillion. That’s somewhere between $150 million a day and $300 million a day. The threat from terrorism has metastasized. There’s a greater danger from ISIS and Al Qaeda, and all these affiliates and other countries by far than there is from Afghanistan.

President Biden outlined rescue efforts for Afghanistan nationals and Americans after the Taliban took control of the region. Mr. Biden defended the U.S. decision to withdraw from Afghanistan despite the chaos unfolding in the country.CreditCredit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Biden promised on Friday to bring home any American still trapped in Afghanistan, calling the evacuation effort for Americans and vulnerable Afghans “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.”

But he acknowledged that he did not know how many Americans were still in the country, or if they could ultimately be brought out safely.

“Let me be clear: Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,” Mr. Biden said, before adding, “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or that it will be without the risk of loss.”

In the days since Afghanistan’s government and security forces crumbled into the hands of the Taliban, the Biden administration has faced growing pressure to remove Americans and the thousands of Afghans who assisted in the two-decade war effort. Mr. Biden’s advisers have resorted to relying on communication with the Taliban to secure safe passage to the airport in Kabul, the Afghan capital, an accord they have conceded is flimsy at best.

Though he ultimately gave few concrete answers, Mr. Biden’s remarks were meant to restore a sense of calm to a situation that had caused an international outcry.

Mr. Biden said he was moved by “heartbreaking” scenes of desperation at the Kabul airport, the country’s bottlenecked and sole point of departure for the evacuation effort, but he ultimately remained committed to his decision to pull U.S. troops from the country.

“Does anybody truly believe that I would not have had to put in significantly more American forces?” Mr. Biden asked reporters at one point. “Send your sons, your daughters, like my son was sent to Iraq, to maybe die?”

Seeking to give a sense of how many people had been flown out of the country in the days since Afghanistan’s collapse, Mr. Biden said some 18,000 people had been airlifted since July. This week, he said, Afghans, including women leaders, and American journalists — including staff members of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — had all been safely removed from the country.

Mr. Biden said that he would commit to airlifting Afghans who had been helpful to the 20-year war effort, but that Americans were his first priority.

On Friday, Mr. Biden, who had been back and forth from vacation spots at Camp David and Wilmington, Del., took questions for the first time since Afghanistan fell. He was asked about the international response to the U.S. withdrawal and how much military and intelligence officials knew ahead of time about the tenuous situation on the ground. He said he had not been criticized by an American ally for the withdrawal effort, but officials in Germany and Britain have publicly expressed alarm about how it was conducted.

“What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with Al Qaeda gone?” Mr. Biden asked in response to a question about whether American allies had been critical of the withdrawal effort. “We went and did the mission. You’ve known my position for a long, long time.”

Mr. Biden’s claim that Al Qaeda has left the country conflicts with a report from the United Nations in June, which estimated that the terrorist group still had a presence in at least 15 provinces, while the Defense Department’s inspector general said in a report released on Wednesday that the Taliban continued to provide “safe haven” for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Scenes of chaos at the airport, which included a young infant being hoisted over a razor wire fence into the arms of American soldiers, have added to the scrutiny over Mr. Biden’s defense of his decision to pull troops out. Mr. Biden said the United States had “6,000 of America’s finest fighting men and women” working to restore order at the airport and get people out of the country.

Since 2002, the United States has employed Afghans to assist its troops, diplomats and aid workers. Many of those people were threatened, attacked or forced to flee their homes as a result of their work, prompting Congress in 2009 to establish a visa program specifically for those who had helped the U.S. government, as well as their immediate relatives.

The program is separate from the process typically used by those fleeing persecution or torture. About 18,000 people are in the process of applying for the visas, and those applicants have at least 53,000 relatives who would be eligible to join them. Despite a congressional mandate that the United States process the visas in nine months, thousands have faced long delays for vetting.

Responding to a question about why he had not authorized the military to expand the perimeter around the airport so more people could gain access to flights out, Mr. Biden said he did not want to open the floodgates, adding that “there will be judgments made on the ground by the military commanders and I cannot second-guess those judgments.” The military cannot expand the perimeter without authorization from the president.

The administration has sought in recent days to show that it has significantly ramped up the evacuation effort: On Friday, administration officials said 13,000 people had been evacuated on American military aircraft since Saturday, with 5,700 of those evacuations occurring since Thursday.

Mr. Biden said his administration had entered into an agreement with the Taliban to ensure that Americans and Afghans could get past Taliban-controlled checkpoints on the way to Kabul, a claim that conflicted with reports of panic and congestion on the ground.

By Friday afternoon, administration officials said the surge of evacuees to other countries had created a backup for “third-party countries” processing new arrivals.

The commander on the ground had ordered flights to restart, a senior administration official said in a statement on Friday.

Mr. Biden’s advisers have conceded that, for Americans and Afghans hoping to reach Kabul from cities and towns further afield, safe passage is not guaranteed. American officials have not publicly said how long they hope the fragile accord will hold ahead of Mr. Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for a total withdrawal.

“We right now have established contact with the Taliban to allow for the safe passage of people to the airport and that is working at the moment to get Americans and Afghans at risk to the airport,” Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt on Thursday. “That being said, we can’t count on anything.”

Linda Qiu contributed reporting.

A man hangs a Taliban flag after Friday prayers in Kabul.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The effort to evacuate people from Afghanistan, hampered by mayhem in Kabul and delays in Washington, stood in sharp contrast to President Biden’s reassurances on Friday.

With thousands of people inside the Kabul airport waiting for flights and thousands more outside the walls trying — and usually failing — to get in, fear reigned among Afghans who feared being stranded in the country after the Taliban takeover.

The United States has rushed troops and diplomatic reinforcements to the airport in recent days to speed up visa processing for Afghans. American commanders are negotiating daily with their Taliban counterparts — the former insurgents they battled for nearly two decades — to ensure that evacuees can reach the airport.

But crowds are still waiting fearfully outside the airport gates, where Taliban soldiers have attacked people with sticks and rifle butts. As Afghans clutching travel documents camped amid Taliban checkpoints and tangles of concertina wire, anxious crowds were pressed up against blast walls, with women and children being hoisted into the arms of U.S. soldiers on the other side.

The United States will start flying some of the refugees to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the U.S. Embassy in Berlin said. The first plane is expected to land Friday night.

“The evacuees will remain temporarily on the grounds of the military base en route to their longer-term accommodations,” the embassy said in a statement.

Since sweeping into Kabul last weekend, the Taliban have moved swiftly to cement their control over Afghanistan, dispersing protests with force and hunting down opponents despite pledges of amnesty, according to witnesses and a security assessment prepared for the United Nations.

The group’s unpredictability and history of brutality have set off a rush to escape, especially among Afghans who worked alongside U.S. and NATO forces.

Two U.S. officials described growing impatience within the Biden administration over the State Department’s inability to process visas more quickly.

The visa system had a backlog of 17,000 cases when Mr. Biden took office in January. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was processing at least 100 people each week until June, before a resurgence of the coronavirus in Afghanistan halted the operation.

Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One of the officials also described how difficult it was for people who had helped the United States to reach the airport safely, given Taliban checkpoints and the masses of Afghans trying to evacuate.

On Thursday, John R. Bass, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, arrived in Kabul with a small group of diplomats to speed up the visa processing. Diplomats are also going to Qatar and Kuwait, where U.S. military bases will serve as way stations for refugees and repatriates before they are sent to another country.

“This is an operation that will continue at as fast a clip as we can possibly manage,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesman. He said American officials were continuously alerting Afghans who had been cleared to fly, including more than 800 on Wednesday night.

About 5,200 U.S. troops are securing the airport under the command of Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, a former Navy SEAL who speaks to a Taliban counterpart outside the airport several times a day, a Pentagon spokesman said. Troops are also deployed at entrances to the airport, where they are assisting consular officers in reviewing documents, he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. military had evacuated 7,000 Americans, Afghans and others since Saturday. The pace is well short of the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers a day that the military will be able to fly out once the evacuation is at full throttle, officials said.

“There are tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans literally at the gate,” said Sunil Varghese, the policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project. “This could have been completely avoided if evacuation was part of the military withdrawal.”

Video

transcript

transcript

Baby Passed Over Razor Wire in Dramatic Scene at Kabul Airport

The international airport in Kabul has been a scene of chaos since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Footage shows crowds gathered outside the airport on Thursday as an infant was passed over a fence to a U.S. solider.

“Guys, guys, guys.” “Hey, baby, baby.” [Gunshots]

Video player loading
The international airport in Kabul has been a scene of chaos since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Footage shows crowds gathered outside the airport on Thursday as an infant was passed over a fence to a U.S. solider.CreditCredit…Omar Haidari/Reuters

Outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday, a frenzied crowd of Afghans gathered on the Taliban-controlled side of a concrete wall topped with razor wire to beg a group of Marines to give them access to freedom.

Suddenly, the mass of outstretched hands produced a baby, no more than a few months old, and held the child up for the soldiers to see. As if handling a piece of luggage, a Marine plucked the infant by a single arm, passing the child behind him before turning back to the crowd.

The scene is harrowing to watch, which is precisely why a video of it was quickly transmitted around the world, fueling anger at a haphazard evacuation process. By Friday, the U.S. military was eager to share that the infant had been safely reunited with a family member.

“The baby seen in the video was taken to a medical treatment facility on site and cared for by medical professionals,” Maj. James Stenger, a spokesman for the Marines, wrote in an email. “I can confirm the baby was reunited with their father and is safe at the airport.”

Major Stenger did not provide additional details, including how many children had been taken to similar treatment facilities in recent days. But he sent a series of photos showing Marines playing with children at military checkpoints and giving children water.

“This is a true example of the professionalism of the Marines on site, who are making quick decisions in a dynamic situation in support of evacuation operations,” he said.

For two decades, Americans have understood the human cost of the war in Afghanistan primarily through the deaths of thousands of American and Afghan soldiers. But this week, images of babies and young children hoisted into the arms of U.S. commandos highlighted what the toll has been to the innocent, prompting emotional reactions from people around the globe.

The quick resolution to a heart-wrenching and viral photo belied a chaotic and rapidly unfolding scene in which multiple children were placed into the care of American troops in last-ditch attempts to get them to freedom.

Seeking to restore calm in the face of what he called “heartbreaking” images, President Biden said on Friday that about 6,000 U.S. troops were working to restore order. He said he was committed to the evacuation of Afghans as well as Americans, before adding that rescuing U.S. citizens would come first.

“We have seen gut-wrenching images of panicked people acting out of sheer desperation,” Mr. Biden said. “It is completely understandable. They are frightened. They are sad. I don’t think anyone of us can see these pictures and not feel that pain on a human level.”

Responding to a question about why he had not authorized the military to expand the perimeter around the airport so that more people could reach flights out, Mr. Biden said he didn’t want to open the floodgates.

The military cannot expand the perimeter without authorization from the president.

Khalil Haqqani, a leader of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, delivering remarks after Friday Prayer at the Pul-i-Khishti Mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Friday.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Kabul’s largest mosque, a grand, blue-domed building in the heart of the old city, was overflowing with the faithful for Friday prayers when a group of Taliban fighters entered.

These were special forces fighters — and an escort for Khalil Haqqani, a member of one of the most powerful networks behind the Taliban’s rise to power and now an integral part of their moves to set up a government.

His protection detail dressed like the commandos in the military of the now deposed Afghan government. They wore uniforms and helmets, had night-vision goggles and carried themselves with a professional deportment.

They cleared a space for Mr. Haqqani in the front row, where he watched — a new American-made M4 assault rifle at his side. After the sermon by the imam of the mosque ended, Mr. Haqqani rose to address those present.

“Our first priority for Afghanistan is security,” he told the crowd, which flowed out onto the street. “If there is no security, there is no life. We will give security, then we will give economy, trade, education for men and women. There will be no discrimination.”

He was greeted by rapturous cheers.

The scene was a reminder that the Taliban enjoy broad support in many pockets of Afghanistan, although it is hard to know how deep that support runs, as Afghans have long learned to survive by cheering on those who seize power.

“People are happy now, because the Taliban brought security,” said a security guard near a money exchange booth, who declined to give his name. “But these are only the first days. It depends on how they rule whether the people will support them.”

For the moment, Mr. Haqqani basked in the reception. He was the victor and carried himself as such.

In the long and twisted tale of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, few groups have played as important a role as the Haqqani network.

Founded by the renowned mujahedeen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani in the late 1970s, the family’s network is suspected of aiding in Osama bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora in 2001. Khalil Haqqani is Jalaluddin’s brother, and the uncle of the Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani.

After the U.S. invasion, the Haqqani family ran an operation that vexed and complicated the war effort for years.

During the conflict, the Haqqanis refined a signature brand of urban terrorist attacks and cultivated a sophisticated international fund-raising network. It was a major factor in the United States military’s push to keep troops in Afghanistan.

The Haqqani network has kidnapped and held for ransom many foreigners over the years, including a New York Times journalist, his interpreter and their driver, in 2008. The reporter and interpreter escaped after eight months, and the driver a month later.

Khalil Haqqani is on both the U.S. and United Nations terrorist lists. And along with several members of the family, he is now playing a prominent role in the new Taliban regime.

He said that he had been consulting with Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, and former President Hamid Karzai. One of Mr. Haqqani’s other nephews, Anas Haqqani, was part of the Taliban’s recent diplomatic delegation in Qatar and has also been in direct talks with Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Karzai.

After the sermons concluded and the crowds thinned on Friday, Mr. Haqqani asked to speak with a New York Times photographer working in Kabul.

He said that journalists would be safe now that the country was at peace, and that women, too, would be protected.

“We have good intentions,” he said.

A U.S. military helicopter flying above Kabul this week.
Credit…Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Pentagon said on Friday that 169 Americans had been rescued from a hotel in Kabul, a rare U.S. military rescue mission beyond the airport grounds since the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital nearly a week ago.

Three UH-47 helicopters based near Hamid Karzai International Airport ferried the group to safety on Thursday, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman told reporters.

The Americans had gathered at the Baron Hotel, a designated meeting point for evacuees in Kabul, from which they intended to walk the 200 yards to the Abbey Gate entrance to the airfield, Mr. Kirby said.

But officials expressed concern about a large crowd at the entrance, and U.S. commanders at the airport decided to pick up the Americans instead.

The helicopters landed next to the hotel, loaded up the passengers and flew the short hop back to the nearby airfield without incident, Mr. Kirby said.

Earlier Friday, President Biden said he did not want to expand the perimeter around the airport to help with the rescue effort, because he feared that doing so would open the floodgates.

“There will be judgments made on the ground by the military commanders,” he added, “and I cannot second-guess those judgments.”

Video

Video player loading
CreditCredit…The New York Times

The situation outside the U.S.-controlled north gate at Kabul’s airport remained chaotic and occasionally violent on Thursday and Friday, according to videos reviewed by The New York Times.

One video, posted on Twitter on Thursday evening, showed a packed crowd of people shouting as what appeared to be tear gas and colored smoke wafted through the air.

The crowd fled from the smoke, and the video showed at least three women briefly fall beneath others’ feet.

Another video, which was posted online on Friday but whose date The Times could not verify, appeared to show soldiers from the former Afghan government’s National Directorate of Security firing into the air to control the crowd, just feet from U.S. soldiers.

“Don’t push, don’t push,” one of the N.D.S. soldiers yelled at the crowd.

The N.D.S., which has been implicated in numerous human rights abuses over the years, is attempting to control the crowds at U.S.-held gates. American and British troops are relying, directly or indirectly, on former Afghan government and Taliban fighters to restrict access to the gates, to prevent overcrowding in the airport and make it easier to process people coming through.

Other videos showed infants being passed over the security perimeter to soldiers standing guard inside the airport.

President Biden said on Thursday that nearly 6,000 U.S. troops were at the airport. The Defense Department said it planned to open additional gates to increase the number of people who could get through.

Zir Ur Rahman contributed translation.

Video

Video player loading
In Afghanistan, raising the national flag has become an act of resistance. We filmed a woman risking her safety to protest the Taliban.CreditCredit…Jordan Bryon for The New York Times

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, raising the national flag instead of the white Taliban flag has become an act of resistance.

We filmed with Crystal Bayat, an activist who helped lead Kabul’s Independence Day protests just days after the Taliban took the city. One of seven women at a protest of roughly 200 people, she led the pack, shouting, “Our flag is our identity!”

Ms. Bayat has been a vocal critic of the Taliban, and despite threats against her, did not want The New York Times to conceal her identity. She says she continues to speak out on behalf of Afghan women who are too scared to leave their homes.

U.S. Air Force transport plane carrying people flown out of Afghanistan lands at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany on Friday.
Credit…Uwe Anspach/DPA, via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The U.S. airlift of Americans and Afghan allies out of Kabul hit a new obstacle when a base in the Persian Gulf where evacuees are being housed temporarily reached it limits, Pentagon officials said on Friday.

U.S. military flights out of Kabul’s international airport paused for six hours, after the available space filled up at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where thousands of Afghans are being processed for resettlement in other countries.

The evacuation later resumed, and the Pentagon said that some flights were now heading to bases in other countries, including Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Additional bases are also under consideration.

Twelve countries “have been, or soon will be,” acting as brief transit stops for people being flown out of Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced on Friday: Bahrain, Britain Denmark, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Tajikistan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan, in addition to Qatar and Germany.

In addition, he said, 13 countries have pledged to help resettle Afghans: Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine and Uganda.

At Al Udeid, there have been reports of shortages of food, water and other supplies caused by the sudden surge of arrivals. The bottleneck in Qatar created another one in Kabul, as thousands of people who had been allowed into the airport then waited for hours for flights to resume.

Despite the delays, the U.S. military flew some 6,000 people out in a 24-hour period from Thursday to Friday, bringing the total number evacuated since Saturday to 13,000 people, Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the military’s Joint Staff said at a Pentagon briefing. Seventeen military transports took off in that time, in addition to aircraft from other countries and civilian flights.

John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said up to 22,000 Afghans could be relocated temporarily to three military bases in the United States. But the Biden administration has relied on the base in Qatar as a first stop, for further security or health screening that could not be completed in the rush to leave Kabul.

Americans and Afghan allies with approved paperwork have had to make their own way to the Kabul airport, sometimes suffering harassment and beatings at checkpoints, and U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they could not guarantee the safety of anyone trying to reach the airport.

Video

transcript

transcript

Desperate to Flee, Thousands Surround Kabul Airport

Chaotic crowds pressed together at the Kabul airport as thousands tried to escape Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

“Sir ——” “You need to wait.” “Come get the passport.” “Come and get your passport.”

Video player loading
Chaotic crowds pressed together at the Kabul airport as thousands tried to escape Taliban rule in Afghanistan.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

They have their papers and plans, their children in tow, a few belongings in hand. But the chaos that continues to surround Kabul’s airport means that thousands of people who are trying to catch flights out of Afghanistan cannot reach them.

Entire families are crowding around the airport’s concrete perimeter walls amid discarded luggage, clothes and toys, running short on food and water, some of them under makeshift sun shelters. The approaches are lined with cars abandoned by people who had no choice but to get out and proceed on foot.

Gunfire is such common background noise, people don’t even flinch. Adding to the roar of the giant planes departing from the airport, American fighter jets on patrol screamed overhead.

The 01 Unit of the former government’s feared National Directorate of Security, working in cooperation with American troops, was controlling some entrances to the northern, military side of the airport, from which U.S. military cargo planes ferried people out of the country. According to U.S. and former Afghan officials, the N.D.S. troops, who would be at very high risk of Taliban reprisals, made a deal with the Americans to help with airport security in return for being airlifted out of the country.

Just yards away, Taliban fighters patrolled the access roads and operated checkpoints. Witnesses said both groups — sworn enemies who, just days ago, were trying to kill each other — used force to hold the crowd at bay, firing rifles into the air and pushing and beating people.

“It is impossible to get to the airport — if you keep going and pushing, you may get shot dead and lose your life,” one Afghan man said on Friday. “I saw a teenage girl trampled yesterday. She was dead, and her father was crying.”

The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety, said he had tried and failed six times in recent days to reach the airport. The crush of people who do not have the paperwork needed to leave prevents access for those who do, he said.

“The rumor is circulating that anyone who makes it to the airport will be evacuated to U.S., Canada and Europe,” he said. “That is why thousands have flooded the airport. The absolute majority are not eligible.”

A woman reached by telephone on Friday, who also did not want her name used for fear of reprisal, said that she was one of 11 people from three families who spent 10 hours at the airport on Thursday but could not get in, despite having the right papers.

The 01 Unit of N.D.S. troops, which had been based in Kabul, “at one point began whipping women to move them away from the gate,” she said. “And a Taliban fighter put a gun on the head of a man, telling him: ‘You’re going to America. Go back to your home or I will shoot you.’”

The woman is from the Hazara ethnic group, who have often suffered from persecution in Afghanistan, and she and others said the 01 Unit was discriminating against Hazaras in airport access.

Ashura commemorations in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Kabul was many things on Thursday. The chaos at the airport was matched by calm in other pockets of the city. Some businesses resumed work, and many people were trying to get on with their lives. Others were in hiding, afraid for theirs. Women were scarce. There were signs of some Taliban restraint, but also clear evidence that its members patrolling the streets were not afraid to wield force.

Aside from the vicinity of the airport — which remained a scene of mass desperation and danger — on a drive around Kabul on Thursday morning, the hum of the city had largely returned.

Markets were bustling, and traffic was jammed.

On the north bank of the Kabul River, about two dozen shirtless young men were preparing to engage in a ritual of self-flagellation. They were commemorating Ashura, a holy day that — although peacefully observed by millions of Shiite Muslims across the world — has in some parts of the Middle East been wracked by violence, with attacks by extremists bent on stoking sectarian tensions.

In Afghanistan, those attacks have targeted the predominantly Shia Hazara minority.

The youngest of the group on the Kabul River, a native of Bamiyan Province who identified himself as Mahdi, was just 12. He called an older attendant over and checked the blades on his Teekh, a set of five chains with knives on the edges, attached to a handle that people whip themselves with in the ceremony.

“OK, they’re nice and sharp — good work,” he said. “I am not afraid of the Taliban. They have no business with me — why would they harm me?”

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As military evacuation planes buzzed overhead, the flagellation began, and the blood started flowing.

While Afghanistan has been beset by its own suffering in recent years, the bloodletting is meant to pay tribute to a fight centuries ago: In the year 680 in what is now the Iraqi city Karbala, the army of Yazid slaughtered Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and cut off his head.

The Taliban are known for their uncompromising and harsh interpretation of Islam, and brutally persecuted the Hazara when in power from 1996 to 2001 — including a massacre of an estimated 2,000 people in 1998. But on Thursday they offered protection so that the ceremony could take place in safety.

Nearby, from the shadow of a drinks stall wrapped in black cloth and ornate with green and red flags, three Taliban members watched placidly.

Their commander, a turbaned man named Ahmad Zia, his beard dyed pitch-black, did not have an assault rifle slung around his shoulder — an oddity among the thousands of Taliban fighters who have flooded the city since Sunday.

Calm and with a swagger easily recognized as coming from the country’s south, he was chatting away with a few younger bystanders.

“I’ve been with the Mujahedeen for the last 12 years. Three days ago, I arrived from Helmand Province, I am from Musa Qala myself,” he said, referring to a district long infamous for being the Taliban’s headquarters in the country. “We are here to provide security 24 hours a day. People can carry on with their lives now.”

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

That sentiment was echoed at the entrance of a nearby mosque.

Nooria Jaan, a 30-year-old housewife, had come to the center of the city to observe the Ashura commemorations.

“I’m really happy right now,” she said. “This year Ashura is really peaceful. The criminals have disappeared overnight. There is no more crime.”

But later that afternoon in another part of town, the loud burst of machine-gun fire pierced the quiet.

A group of young men had tried to raise the tricolor flag of the ousted Afghan government. Their efforts atop a hill were violently broken up by Taliban foot soldiers, who let loose a volley of gunfire.

Three people had been shot.

One of the wounded sat in the passenger seat of a gray Toyota Corolla, its windows shattered from the bullet impact.

Another injured protester staggered down the hill, blood dripping from his hair and down his neck.

“The end of a Taliban rifle” he said, relating how he had been beaten.

As darkness fell over the city, sporadic gunfire continued.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
A crowd of people trying to flee Afghanistan lining up outside Kabul’s airport as a C-130 military cargo plane takes off on Friday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

BRUSSELS — NATO foreign ministers on Friday called on the Taliban to allow those who wish to leave Afghanistan to do so and said that they were working to make it easier for Afghans to reach and enter the international airport there. They vowed that the allies would remain in “close operational coordination through allied military means” while the evacuations continue.

Meeting by videoconference, the foreign ministers discussed the difficulties with the evacuation of their citizens and of Afghans who have aided the allied effort there and want to leave. In a joint statement, the 30 foreign ministers urged “those in positions of authority in Afghanistan to respect and facilitate their safe and orderly departure, including through Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.’’

Speaking after the meeting, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, said that the problem was not the availability of planes but the difficulty in filling them. “The main challenge we face,” he said, “is ensuring that people can reach and enter Kabul airport.” There have been reports that the Taliban are hunting Afghans who worked with NATO and other foreign governments and aid agencies.

“We expect the Taliban to allow for the safe passage of all foreign nationals and Afghans seeking to depart the country,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “This is the most urgent task today.”

There are worries that the Taliban will intensify the screening of Afghans trying to reach the airport and will not allow the evacuations to go on indefinitely. President Biden has said the evacuation would be completed by the end of August, but some other countries have asked Washington to extend that date.

Mr. Biden softened his stance a bit this week, saying that the flights would continue as long as needed to airlift American citizens, but he has made no similar promise concerning Afghan nationals.

There have been strains among NATO members during the evacuation, with German nationals saying that American troops would not let them into the airport, at least temporarily.

On Thursday, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, spoke to President Biden and told him that the Americans were making the repatriation process in Kabul quite difficult for other nations and asked for more cooperation at the airport, French officials said.

The ministers also repeated a warning to the Taliban not to allow “international terrorists” safe haven in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks against the West, as they did a generation ago with Al Qaeda.

“We will not allow any terrorists to threaten us,’’ they said. “We remain committed to fighting terrorism with determination, resolve, and in solidarity.”

Mr. Stoltenberg said that the ministers also agreed to hold an investigation of NATO’s 20-year involvement in Afghanistan and draw “cleareyed” lessons about how it failed and where it might have succeeded, he said.

Selling phones and SIM cards at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2016.
Credit…Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Facebook says it has added several security features to help people in Afghanistan control their accounts as fears rise of reprisals from the Taliban.

In a series of tweets late Thursday, Facebook’s head of security said the company had temporarily disabled the ability to view and search the friends lists of Facebook accounts inside Afghanistan. He also said the platform, which is seeing a proliferation of new Taliban accounts despite a ban on the group, had provided a tool to help Afghans quickly lock their accounts if they feared being targeted.

The unprecedented measures target one of the most fundamental Facebook features: the friends list. They represent a frank acknowledgment from the company, which has long touted its ability to connect the world, of the risks of having personal information available on social networks.

Since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan this week, their promises of amnesty and reconciliation have been undermined by reports that their soldiers are engaging in reprisal attacks and forcibly cracking down on protests.

In the days since the militants took over cities including Kabul, the capital, many Afghans have shuttered their social media accounts and deleted messages out of fear that their digital footprints could make them targets of the former insurgents. In the past, the Taliban have meted out brutal retribution against Afghans with ties to the country’s former government or Western countries such as the United States.

The Taliban have nevertheless become sophisticated users of social media. During the summer offensive that catapulted them to power, they used social media platforms to spread their messages.

Facebook’s head of security, Nathaniel Gleicher, also urged people with friends in Afghanistan to consider tightening their own privacy settings.

The social network’s strict bans on the Taliban have pushed many of its most influential voices and officials to Twitter. Still, the platform has struggled to keep out all accounts. Dozens of new ones have appeared on the site in recent days, presenting the company with the difficult question of how to regulate a group that now controls Afghanistan.

The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, pictured in 2019, suffered greatly when the Taliban were last in power.
Credit…Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

Taliban officials have promised to protect the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, and its valuable collection of cultural artifacts, the museum’s director said in an interview on Thursday.

The Taliban posted a small group of armed guards outside the museum to prevent looting, according to the director, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, who said he had met with Taliban officials on Wednesday.

“Had there been fighting, it could have been a disaster and could have destroyed a lot of things here and many monuments throughout the country,” Mr. Rahimi said. “We are a bit fortunate for now that the change of power has not cost such death and destruction.”

“We still have great concern for the safety of our staff and our collection,” he added.

The National Museum suffered greatly in the 1990s as civil war led to looting and the destruction of most of its buildings. After the Taliban were ousted in 2001, officials at the museum reported that the militants had confiscated or destroyed many thousands of objects in its collection — largely Buddhist statues and other relics that were deemed un-Islamic and idolatrous.

Many other objects were looted by criminal groups and smuggled overseas.

Mr. Rahimi said the Taliban had told him they would not enter the museum, which has been indefinitely closed.

He said that the museum had a contingency plan for moving its collection to safe locations, but that it had not put it into action because of the Taliban’s rapid takeover.

Afghans gathering on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on Friday.
Credit…Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As the United States and its allies struggle to accelerate efforts to get people at risk of Taliban reprisals out of Kabul, some international relief organizations are struggling to get urgently needed supplies in.

“We are running out of supplies and are scrambling now to see how we can get the next shipment in,” Richard Brennan, the World Health Organization’s regional emergencies chief, said on Friday.

The group’s stocks have dwindled to little more than a week’s supply. It has more sitting in Doha, but no commercial flights operating to Kabul to take them.

Amid intense news media coverage of tragic scenes at Kabul airport, “the bigger humanitarian picture has been lost,” he said.

Afghanistan was the site of the world’s third biggest humanitarian disaster before the government’s collapse on Sunday, with 18 million people in need of aid.

Now, after days of turmoil, aid agencies are starting to resume operations, navigating a vacuum in the central government and concerns over security with the help of Taliban contacts established long ago in provinces across Afghanistan.

The W.H.O. has access to all Afghan provinces, they said, noting that the Taliban authorities had communicated that they want all of their workers, including women, back at work.

The Taliban have posted guards outside some health facilities to provide security.

With about 14 million people, including two million children, at risk of going hungry, the U.N.’s World Food Program said it was involved in meetings with the Taliban authorities who want the organization to resume work and deliveries.

Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State, meeting with the Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Taliban peace negotiators in Doha, Qatar, in November 2020.
Credit…Pool photo by Patrick Semansky

In February 2020, eager to remove American troops from Afghanistan by the end of his term, President Donald J. Trump struck a deal with the Taliban: U.S. forces would leave in return for Taliban promises not to harbor terrorists and to engage in direct negotiations with the Afghan government.

Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, attended the signing ceremony in Doha and posed for a photo alongside the Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar

Some former senior Trump officials now call that agreement fatally flawed, saying it did little more than provide cover for a pullout that Mr. Trump was impatient to begin before his re-election bid. They also say it laid the groundwork for the chaos unfolding now in Kabul.

“Our secretary of state signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” Mr. Trump’s second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said of Mr. Pompeo in a podcast interview on Wednesday. “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”

The photo of Mr. Pompeo resurfaced this week on social media as the Taliban asserted control of Afghanistan. Mr. Baradar is widely expected to become the head of a new Taliban government based in Kabul.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said that while President Biden “owns” the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan, Mr. Trump had earlier “undermined” the agreement through his barely disguised impatience to exit the country with little apparent regard for the consequences.

Protests were staged in cities around the world this week as fears grew that tens of thousands of Afghans could be left to suffer under the Taliban.

A student in the Afghanistan National Institute of Music’s all-female orchestra practicing in 2019.
Credit…Jawad Jalali/EPA, via Shutterstock

For more than a decade, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music has stood as a symbol of the country’s changing identity. It trained hundreds of young artists in artistic traditions that were once forbidden by the Taliban, and formed an all-female orchestra that performed widely in Afghanistan and abroad.

But in recent days, as the Taliban have again consolidated control over Afghanistan, the school’s future has been thrown into doubt.

Several students and teachers said in interviews that they feared that the Taliban, who have a history of attacking the school’s leaders, would seek to punish people affiliated with the school as well as their families. Several female students said they had been staying inside their homes since Kabul, the capital, was seized on Sunday.

Some said they worried that the school will be shut down and that they will not be allowed to play again — even as a hobby.

“My concern is that the people of Afghanistan will be deprived of their music,” Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the head of the school, said in a telephone interview. “There will be an attempt to silence the nation.”

The Taliban banned most forms of music when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. This time, they have promised a more tolerant approach, vowing not to carry out reprisals against their former enemies and saying that women will be allowed to work and study “within the bounds of Islamic law.”

But their history of violence toward artists and their general intolerance for music without religious meaning has sowed doubts among many performers.

Tens of millions of Afghans now have mobile phones, connecting them with the outside world in ways that were impossible when the Taliban last ruled.
Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

In one video, a Taliban official reassured female health workers that they could keep their jobs. In another, militants told Sikhs, a minority religious group, that they were free and protected. Still others suggested a new lawfulness in Kabul, with Talib fighters holding looters and thieves at gunpoint.

The Taliban, who banned the internet the first time they controlled Afghanistan, have turned social media into a powerful tool to tame opposition and broadcast their messages. Now firmly in control of the country, they are using thousands of Twitter accounts — some official and others anonymous — to placate Afghanistan’s terrified but increasingly tech-savvy urban base.

The images of peace and stability projected by the Taliban contrast sharply with the scenes broadcast around the world of the chaotic American evacuation from the Kabul airport or footage of protesters being beaten and shot at.

They demonstrate the digital powers the militants have honed over years of insurgency, offering a glimpse of how the Taliban could use those tools to rule Afghanistan, even as they cling to their fundamentalist religious tenets and violent proclivities.

Afghan social media may be a poor indicator of public sentiment. Many of the Taliban’s critics and supporters of the U.S.-backed government have gone underground. But already, with a social media campaign in recent weeks that may have helped encourage Afghan security forces to put down their weapons, the Taliban have shown that they can effectively sell their message.

A Hazara man talking to Taliban members who were securing the Ashura commemoration site by the Kabul river in central Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As the Taliban cement their control over Afghanistan, there is a deepening fear among the country’s religious and ethnic minorities that the gains they made over the past two decades could be lost and that they could again find themselves the target of persecution.

Many Hazaras — Shiite Muslims who are estimated to make up 10 to 20 percent of the country’s population — worry that atrocities of the past will be revisited despite assurances from the Taliban leadership that they have changed.

“We are extremely worried and scared. Taliban have a history of violence against us,” one Hazara man who lives in Kabul said by telephone, not wanting his name used in public for fear of reprisals. “Now I feel I am a target for them. I don’t leave home unless it is very necessary.”

He said local Taliban officials had assured residents that civilians would not be targeted as they entered the area. But he said they had broken that promise. His father-in-law was killed by militants in Ghazni Province after the Taliban captured the area last month.

“He had not harmed anyone, he was just a teacher, a religious scholar and an educator,” he said of his father-in-law.

As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan this summer in advance of their blitz that culminated in the fall of Kabul, an investigation by Amnesty International has found evidence of the slaughter of nine Hazara men, raising fears of more bloodletting to come.

“On-the-ground researchers spoke to eyewitnesses who gave harrowing accounts of the killings,” which took place in early July in Ghazni Province, according to the report. “Six of the men were shot, and three were tortured to death, including one man who was strangled with his own scarf and had his arm muscles sliced off.”

One witness said villagers had asked the fighters why they inflicted such brutality on people. The answer from a fighter, the witness said, was that “in a time of conflict, everyone dies.”

The killings took place before the Taliban issued a blanket amnesty in Kabul this week, promising no reprisal killings and safety for all Afghans. It is difficult to know what is happening in much of the country since cellphone service has been cut in places and many journalists have fled or are in hiding. But there have been no reports of wide-scale attacks on Hazaras since Sunday.

And on Thursday, Taliban soldiers provided security in Kabul as Hazara men commemorated Ashura, a Shia holy day.

Yet the last time the Taliban swept to power, they exacted revenge on the Hazara population after taking control of Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in the north.

“Within the first few hours of seizing control of the city, Taliban troops killed scores of civilians in indiscriminate attacks, shooting noncombatants and suspected combatants alike in residential areas, city street sand markets,” according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch. “Witnesses described it as a ‘killing frenzy.’”

This time around, one of the Taliban militants’ first acts after taking control of the country was to blow up a statue of the Shiite militia leader Abdul Ali Mazari in Bamiyan Province, the Hazaras’ unofficial capital.

And with many Hazaras having adopted liberal values over the past two decades, said a Hazara woman who works for the government, “the threat we face now is much more serious than the 1990s.”

“I am worried about my and my family’s life,” she said, speaking by telephone from Kabul on the condition of anonymity, fearing for her safety.

“Hazara women have a strong presence in the society: They are university students, working outside, and are visible in the streets,” she said. “And this is exactly the opposite of what the Taliban want.”

Reporters on Tuesday at the Taliban’s first news conference since taking control of Kabul.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As the United States and other countries accelerate efforts to get Afghan allies out of the country, Afghan journalists employed by foreign news organizations are facing a more perilous route to safety from the Taliban, and some have been killed.

Despite assurances of amnesty by the regime, a growing number of reports indicate that Taliban are searching for Afghan reporters and in some cases targeting them or members or their families.

The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported on Thursday that Taliban soldiers who were searching for one of their reporters had killed one member of his family and severely injured another.

“The Taliban are obviously conducting organized searches for journalists in Kabul and provinces,” the director of Deutsche Welle, Peter Limbourg, said in a statement. “Time is running out.”

The broadcaster, along with several other leading German media outlets, urged Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to help them secure passage out of Afghanistan for its employees and their families.

“This letter is a cry for help,” the outlets wrote in an open letter this week. “The lives of our local staff are in acute danger.”

Last week, Amdullah Hamdard, 33, who learned English as a teenager and translated for U.S. Special Forces — they gave him the nickname “Huggy Bear” — had spent the last four years working with Die Zeit newspaper. He was murdered by Taliban fighters on the street near his home in Jalalabad, the paper reported.

In recent days, the publishers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post banded together on evacuation efforts for staff members and their families. Security personnel and editors shared information on morning calls. The publishers called on the Biden administration to help facilitate the passage of their Afghan colleagues, and discussions ensued with officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department.

This week, the first local employees of the three organizations flew out of the country after days of delays. For a group of 128 people from The Times, a breakthrough came when Qatar, a country with ties to both Afghanistan and the United States, agreed to help get them to safety.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, told a gathering of reporters on Tuesday that media outlets “can continue to be free and independent,” although he that added “Islamic values should be taken into account.”

But on Thursday, Taliban fighters beat two Afghan journalists while violently dispersing a protest in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog group, noted other attacks against journalists in recent days, including the fatal shooting on Aug. 9 of a radio station manager in Kabul, and the kidnapping of a reporter in Helmand Province. Afghan press freedom groups blamed the Taliban for both incidents.

An American journalist, Wesley Morgan, tweeted this week that the Taliban had searched the house of an Afghan interpreter he worked with. The interpreter, who was not at home, watched the search unfold on security footage sent to an app on his phone, Mr. Morgan said.

The director general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, called on the Taliban to uphold their promises of protecting journalists and a free press. The organization has helped develop Afghanistan’s media over the past 20 years, including journalism education and gender-sensitive reporting.

“UNESCO urges that the important progress made should not be undone and in particular that women journalists must be able to continue their crucial work,” Ms. Azoulay said.