U.S. forces are in the final phase of leaving Kabul, ending two decades of involvement in Afghanistan, and just over 1,000 civilians at the airport remain to be flown out before troops withdraw, a Western security official said on Sunday.
“We want to ensure that every foreign civilian and those who are at risk are evacuated today. Forces will start flying out once this process is over,” said the Western security official, who is stationed at the airport.
The country’s new Taliban rulers are prepared to take control of the airport, said an official from the hardline Islamist movement that has swept cross Afghanistan, crushing the U.S.-backed government.
The Western security official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters a date and time for the end of the operation was yet to be decided.
President Joe Biden has said he will stick by his deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Tuesday, 20 years after they invaded Kabul and ousted the Taliban government for shielding the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The Western-backed government and Afghan army melted away as the Taliban entered the capital on Aug. 15, leaving an administrative vacuum that has bolstered fears of a financial collapse and widespread hunger.
Under a deal with the United States, the Taliban has said it will allow foreigners and Afghans who wish to leave to fly out. The United States and allies have taken about 113,500 people out of Afghanistan in the past two weeks, but tens of thousands who want to go will be left behind.
A U.S. official told Reuters on Saturday there were fewer than 4,000 troops left at the airport, down from 5,800 at the peak of the evacuation mission. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters some troops had been withdrawn but declined to say how many remained.
The Taliban official told Reuters the Islamist group had engineers and technicians ready to take charge of the airport.
“We are waiting for the final nod from the Americans to secure full control over Kabul airport as both sides aim for a swift handover,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The Western security official said crowds at the airport gates had diminished after a specific warning from the U.S. government of another attack by militants after a suicide bombing outside the airport on Thursday.
The explosion killed scores of Afghans and 13 American troops outside the gates of the airport, where thousands of Afghans had gathered to try to get a flight out since the Taliban returned to power.
The United States said on Friday it killed two militants belonging to Islamic State – enemies of both the West and Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers – which had claimed responsibility for the attack.
Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid condemned the overnight U.S. drone strike against Islamic State militants following Thursday’s suicide attack near the airport as a “clear attack on Afghan territory”.
“The Americans should have informed us before conducting the air strike. It was a clear attack on Afghan territory,” a Taliban spokesman told Reuters, adding that two women and a child were wounded in the attack.