Evacuation flights from the airport in Kabul began winding down on Saturday as the United States prepared to withdraw its remaining troops from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan amid continued threats of terrorist attacks.
Britain’s evacuation of its citizens was ending on Saturday, and the country was beginning to bring its remaining troops home, Nick Carter, the chief of the defense staff, told the BBC’s Radio 4.
The departure of troops signaled a tumultuous end to a 20-year war that has left Afghanistan awash in grief and desperation, with many residents fearing for their lives under Taliban rule and struggling with cash shortages and rising food prices.
A suicide attack claimed by Islamic State militants that killed scores of people outside the Kabul airport this week brought further anguish and hindered evacuation efforts.
“We haven’t been able to bring everybody out, and that has been heartbreaking,” Gen. Carter told the BBC. “There have been some very challenging judgments that have had to be made on the ground.”
France, too, has ended its evacuations, French officials said Friday.
Three days remain before President Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Yet the mission was already slowing, as it shifted from airlifting Afghan civilians to bringing home American troops and military personnel.
About 6,800 people were evacuated from the airport over the previous 24 hours, Maj. General Hank Taylor, Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, said on Saturday, bringing the total to 117,000 since the operation began on Aug. 14. Evacuations were down from early Thursday, prior to the suicide attack, when White House officials said that 13,400 people had been airlifted in the previous 24 hours.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are still thought to be seeking to flee the country, yet Mr. Biden and other global leaders have acknowledged that many will not get out before the deadline.
There were signs on Saturday that the evacuation effort at the airport was slowing.
Roads leading to the airport were closed, and the large crowds that had strained in recent days to push inside had dissipated in the aftermath of the bombing, which struck as U.S. troops were screening people trying to enter.
Most gates were closed Saturday, and few people were getting through. At the airport’s South Gate, which remained open Saturday, buses carrying hundreds of people lined up, their processing slowed by the close screening for explosives.
Thursday’s attack was one of the deadliest in the nearly two decades since the U.S.-led invasion, killing 13 American service members and as many as 170 civilians.
For the first time, Pentagon officials publicly acknowledged on Saturday the possibility that some of the people killed in the aftermath of the suicide bombing at Kabul airport may have died in gunfire coming from American service members after the suicide bomber detonated himself.
Pentagon officials also said that two “high-profile” Islamic State militants were killed and one was wounded in Friday night’s drone strike in Nangahar Province as part of the American retaliation for the suicide bombing at the airport.