Afghanistan Live Updates: U.S. Shoots Down Rockets as Withdrawal Looms

The U.S. military intercepted rockets aimed at the Kabul airport on Monday morning. The U.S. has warned that more attacks, like the one last week outside the airport, are possible before it withdraws on Tuesday.

LiveUpdated Aug. 30, 2021, 7:44 a.m. ETAug. 30, 2021, 7:44 a.m. ET

The U.S. military intercepted rockets aimed at the Kabul airport on Monday morning. The U.S. has warned that more attacks, like the one last week outside the airport, are possible before it withdraws on Tuesday.

Here’s what you need to know:

U.S. shoots down rockets aimed at Kabul’s airport.

An Afghan family struggles to reunite after being separated by the Kabul airport attack.

American University of Afghanistan students and relatives trying to flee were sent home.

China urges the United States to engage with the Taliban.

Dozens of countries say they will accept Afghan refugees after Aug. 31.

Two of the U.S. service members killed in the Kabul attack were women.

A day after a U.S. drone struck a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, relatives and neighbors surveyed the damage on Monday.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As the U.S. military raced toward a Tuesday deadline to withdraw from America’s longest war, sporadic violence in the Afghan capital underlined the perils ahead for a country already buffeted by insecurity, a humanitarian crisis and a terrorist threat.

The U.S. military shot down rockets aimed at the Kabul airport on Monday morning, a day after it said that one of its drones struck a vehicle full of explosives. The U.S. has warned that more attacks, like the one last week outside the airport that killed nearly 200 people, are possible before it withdraws on Tuesday. Islamic State Khorasan claimed responsibility for that bombing, which also killed U.S. troops.

The moves by the U.S. military lay bare the precariousness of the security situation in the Afghan capital and the dangers of an imminent security vacuum, with just two days remaining before President Biden’s deadline to complete the withdrawal after nearly 20 years of war.

A U.S. official said the rockets aimed at the airport were brought down by a counter-rocket system, and that there were no initial reports of casualties. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the rockets. The airport remained open, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.

It followed another U.S. strike on Sunday, when a U.S. military drone strike blew up a vehicle in Kabul that officials said was laden with explosives and headed toward the airport. Afghans said the drone strike killed as many as nine civilians, including children, and the U.S. military said it was investigating.

Even as violence gripped Kabul, the United States was scrambling to prepare for its departure, including the evacuation of the 300 Americans who remain in the Afghan capital.

The United States is unlikely to keep diplomats in Afghanistan after the U.S. military departs, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Sunday.

Officials said they expected that the U.S. would open a diplomatic mission for Afghanistan in a country elsewhere in the region, in part to continue helping the surge of expected refugees obtain necessary departure documents. That effort could be based in Pakistan or the United Arab Emirates, an official said, given the large Afghan diaspora in both countries.

People gather around a burning car believed to have been used to fire rockets at Kabul’s airport on Monday. The U.S. military used a defense system to intercept some of the rockets.Credit…Aamaj News Agency, via Reuters

As the United States appeared intent on conducting defensive strikes ahead of its departure, defense officials in a statement Sunday evening acknowledged the possibility that civilians may have been killed after Sunday’s drone strike.

Samim, a 25-year-old journalism student, said the strike killed his father, his two brothers, four of his young cousins, his niece and his sister’s fiance. Three of the dead were girls 2 years old or younger, he said, and his aunt and uncle lost all three of their children.

“The American aircraft targeted us,” he said. “I do not know what to say, they just cut my arms and broke my back, I cannot say anything more.”

A doctor at a nearby hospital said four bodies were taken there, two of them those of children.

A senior U.S. military official responded that the military was confident that no civilians had been in the targeted vehicle, but acknowledged that the detonation of the explosives in it could have caused “collateral damage.”

Video of the scene showed a tangle of metal barely recognizable as the remains of a vehicle, and just a few feet away, the charred, pockmarked wreck of another vehicle. Samim said his father had been pulling that S.U.V. into their garage when the explosion hit.

People being sent away from the Abbey Gate area of the Kabul airport last week.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The suicide bomb blast that killed more than 170 people crowded outside Abbey Gate at Kabul’s airport on Thursday also sundered a family gathered there, hoping to flee.

Ahmad Wali Stanekzai’s wife, Zakya, died from injuries sustained in the explosion. He couldn’t find his three children — Mina, Ahmad Faisal, and Masiullah — who disappeared in the bedlam after the explosion.

Masiullah, a teenager, was dazed from the blast and called his aunt, Ferishta Stanekzai, who lives in Virginia.

“He said, ‘I don’t know about my mom, dad, brother and sister, what happened to them, but I am here alone, and there is firing, and I don’t know where I should go,'” Ms. Stanekzai said in an interview on Sunday.

Ms. Stanekzai began working the phones, with the help of Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, a retired Air Force officer who has been trying to extricate several hundred Afghans in the two weeks since the Taliban captured Kabul. This account is based on interviews with Ms. Stanekzai and General Bradley, who have been in contact with Mr. Stanekzai and other relatives and neighbors.

Mr. Stanekzai’s family were among the Afghans General Bradley tried to help. They had traveled to the airport in Kabul in a desperate attempt to get on a flight with documentation from General Bradley, but with no official clearance to board a plane. As they tried to navigate a path out of the country, the Islamic State Khorasan, the terrorist group’s Afghan affiliate, attacked the gate.

“Finally we contact my brother, and he says that ‘I don’t know about my two kids, but I lost my wife,'” Ms. Stanekzai said.

Mr. Stanekzai began searching the hospitals in Kabul for his missing children, and in time reunited with his oldest son. But he couldn’t find his other two children, and he and Ms. Stanekzai contacted dozens of friends and neighbors to scour the city.

In time they learned that the children had boarded an airplane with a neighbor, Imran Ibrahim. But Mr. Stanekzai did not know the flight’s destination.

Ms. Stanekzai eventually reached Mr. Ibrahim. He and the children had landed in Germany, where the children received medical treatment for injuries from the Kabul blast at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, near Ramstein Air Base.

But Mr. Stanekzai and Masiullah are still in Kabul, with no way out, as President Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline fast approaches. They are just two of the tens of thousands of Afghans with connections to the United States who are desperate to escape.

General Bradley said he and family members had appealed to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, and retired military leaders to reach out to President Biden or other officials who can help the Stanekzais secure a flight out of Kabul.

A White House staffer and an aide to Senator Warner said they were working on it, but so far a flight out for the Stanekzais has not been approved, General Bradley said.

“The security situation is making things very difficult,” Rachel Cohen, Mr. Warner’s communications director, said in an email on Sunday, adding that “this is a priority for us.”

Mr. Stanekzai and his son have stayed in a home in Kabul, leaving briefly to hold an Islamic funeral for his wife.

Reaching the airport means enduring Taliban checkpoints, chaotic streets and the possibility of another terrorist attack.

“I understand how difficult it is, since we’ve already lost so many precious young American lives in this operation, but I feel that it is an obligation of our country to reunite this family,” General Bradley said in an interview on Sunday.

Ms. Stanekzai said that her brother and nephew were concerned that their time was running out.

“‘What will happen if we don’t get out?'” Ms. Stanekzai said her nephew asked in a recent conversation. “‘I just want to be with my brother and sister.'”

The campus of the American University in Kabul.Credit…Hosay

Hundreds of students, their relatives and staff of the American University of Afghanistan gathered at a safe house on Sunday and boarded buses in what was supposed to be a final attempt at evacuation on U.S. military flights, the students said.

But after seven hours of waiting for clearance to enter the airport gates and driving around the city, the group met a dead end: Evacuations were permanently called off. The airport gates remained a security threat, and civilian evacuations were ending Monday.

“I regret to inform you that the high command at HKIA in the airport has announced there will be no more rescue flights,” said an email sent to students from the university administration on Sunday afternoon, which was shared with The New York Times.

“The scholar pilgrims who were turned away today while seeking safe passage to a better future need the help of the U.S. government who gave them the hope they must not lose,” the American University president, Ian Bickford, said.

The email asked the 600 or so students and relatives to return home. The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan must be completed by a Tuesday deadline, so the U.S. military is turning from evacuating civilians to bringing its own personnel home.

The group was then alarmed after the U.S. military, following protocol, shared a list of names and passport information of hundreds of students and their families with the Taliban guarding the airport checkpoints, the university president said.

“They told us: we have given your names to the Taliban,” said Hosay, a 24-year-old sophomore studying business administration who was on the bus on Sunday. “We are all terrified, there is no evacuation, there is no getting out.”

Hosay earned a scholarship that covered half of her tuition. She wanted to get an M.B.A. and start an all-female engineering firm.

When the Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15, one of the first sites the group captured was the sprawling, modern American University campus. Men in traditional Afghan outfits swinging AK-47 rifles brought down the university flag and raised the flag of the Taliban, according to student and social media photos.

The Taliban posted a picture of themselves on social media standing at the entrance of a university building with an ominous message, saying this was where America trained infidel “wolves” to corrupt the minds of Muslims.

The photograph was widely shared among Afghans and sent students and alumni into hiding. They had reason to be scared. In 2016, the Taliban attacked the campus with explosives and guns in a terrorist assault that lasted 10 hours and killed 15 people, including seven students.

The university shut down its campus on Aug. 14 as word reached administrators that the Taliban were on the outskirts of Kabul. Mr. Bickford and foreign staff left Kabul for Doha that night.

Mr. Bickford said in an interview last week that he was working with the State Department to evacuate about 1,200 students and alumni. But on Friday after the deadly attack on the airport, Mr. Bickford said that effort had become much more complicated.

Mr. Bickford said the university was committed to ensuring all enrolled students would finish their degrees remotely.

The American University of Afghanistan opened in 2006, receiving most of its funding from the United States Agency for International Development, which gave $160 million. It was one of the U.S.A.I.D.’s largest civilian projects in Afghanistan.

Students said they had struggled emotionally over the past two weeks after they went from being college students to fugitives overnight.

Several students interviewed repeated a poetic saying in Dari: “Our hopes and dreams have turned into dust.”

Mohammad, a 31-year-old father of three and part-time government ministry worker, had three more courses left to finish his degree in business administration.

His job and salary are now gone. His degree is in jeopardy.

“It’s as if you throw a glass on a cement floor and your life shatters in a split second,” he said Sunday from a safe house.

Yasser, a 27-year-old political science student, said he was told in an email from the university on Saturday to report to a safe location for evacuation. But after President Biden said there were security threats to the airport, the plan was scrapped and everyone was sent home.

Early Sunday morning, Yasser received another email from the university asking him to go to a safe house at 7:45 a.m. The students were told to bring only a backpack with two outfits. Videos shared with The New York Times of the evacuation show hundreds of students carrying backpacks and waiting on the roadside. Dozens of buses are lined up.

The chitchat among students abruptly ends and someone gasps. Someone cries. The students have just been told that evacuations had been called off.

“It was a frightening day,” Yasser said. “We went there anticipating to be rescued and returned home defeated.”

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned his U.S. counterpart that cooperation on Afghanistan would depend on the U.S.’s attitude toward Beijing. Credit…Pool photo by Francis Malasig

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, urged the United States to engage with the Taliban and provide urgently needed aid to Afghanistan.

In a phone call on Sunday, Mr. Yang warned Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, that the Chinese government’s cooperation on Afghanistan would depend on the United States and its attitude toward Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry posted an account of the call on its website.

Mr. Wang told Mr. Blinken that the Biden administration should also maintain contacts with the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from falling deeper into chaos. Before the Taliban seized control of Kabul earlier this month, Beijing had held talks with senior Taliban officials about the future of Afghanistan, which shares a narrow border with China.

“There has been a fundamental change in domestic developments in Afghanistan and all sides need to engage in contacts with the Taliban,” Mr. Wang said, according to the foreign ministry’s account. “The United States, in particular, must work with the international community to provide Afghanistan with economic, public welfare and humanitarian aid, assisting the new political structure in Afghanistan in maintaining normal government operations and safeguarding social stability and public security.”

So far, the Chinese government has not specified what aid and other support it may provide Afghanistan, nor any conditions it has for recognizing a new Taliban-dominated government in Kabul. But Mr. Wang suggested that Beijing’s willingness to work alongside the Biden administration on such issues was conditional on tamping down broader tensions between the two big powers.

The United States has criticized the Chinese government over its security crackdown in Hong Kong, repression of largely Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, and warnings to Taiwan, the democratically governed island that Beijing regards as a part of China.

“Recently China and the U.S. have opened up communication over Afghanistan, climate change and other issues,” Mr. Wang said. “China will consider how to engage with the U.S. based on U.S. attitudes toward China. If the U.S. also hopes for Chinese-U.S. relations to return to a normal track, then stop persistently maligning and attacking China and harming Chinese sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Afghanistan evacuees departing from a processing center at the Dulles Expo Center in Virginia on Thursday.Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The United States and 97 other countries said on Sunday that they would continue to take in people fleeing Afghanistan after the American military departs this week and had secured an agreement with the Taliban to allow safe passage for those who are leaving.

The Taliban’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, had announced on Friday that the group would not stop people from departing, no matter their nationality or whether they had worked for the United States during the 20-year war.

The joint statement released on Sunday on behalf of more than half of the world’s governments and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said that they had “received assurances from the Taliban” that people with travel documents showing they were clear to enter any of those countries could safely depart.

The countries also pledged to “continue issuing travel documentation to designated Afghans” and cited a “clear expectation of and commitment from the Taliban” of their safe passage.

“We note the public statements of the Taliban confirming this understanding,” the statement said.

Notably missing from the statement were Russia and China, two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council who have pledged to help the Taliban rebuild Afghanistan.

The statement did not warn of any consequences should the Taliban renege on the agreement, although a senior State Department official said it was meant to convey an implicit message about incentives — namely, foreign aid to the government — that the international community would use to enforce it.

The chief American envoy to Taliban peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, tweeted on Saturday that the Taliban’s assurances were “positive” and that “we, our allies, and the international community will hold them to these commitments.”

That stood in stark contrast to the tens of thousands of Afghans who relief agencies said feared being left behind and living under Taliban rule. That includes those who worked for the American military or the U.S. Embassy since 2001 and were eligible to immigrate to the United States.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told ABC News on Sunday that there were 300 Americans who were still waiting to be evacuated from Kabul.

“We are very actively working to help them get to the airport, get on a plane and get out of Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken said.

When he was asked about the assurances from the Taliban, Mr. Blinken said that the U.S. government was not under any illusions.

“I’m not saying we should trust the Taliban on anything,” he said. “I’m simply reporting what one of their senior leaders said to the Afghan people.”

Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.

A memorial for Sgt. Johanny Rosario, one of the U.S. Marines killed this week in the bombing at the Kabul airport, at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., on Sunday.Credit…Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

One of the last photos that Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee shared with her family from Afghanistan shows her in dusty body armor with a rifle, her long blond hair pulled back, her hands in tactical gloves. Amid the chaos of Kabul, those hands are carefully cradling a baby.

It was a moment captured on the front lines of the airport, where Marines worked feverishly to shepherd tens of thousands of evacuees through chaotic and dangerous razor wire gates. It showed how, even in the tumult, many took time to comfort the families who made it through.

In a short message posted with the photo, the sergeant said, “I love my job??”

Sergeant Gee never made it out.

“She believed in what she was doing, she loved being a Marine,” her brother-in-law, Gabriel Fuoco, said. “She wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.”

Sergeant Gee, 23, of Roseville, Calif., was one of two women in uniform killed at the gate. The other was Marine Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass. Sergeant Rosario was commended by her unit in May for excellence in a supply chief job usually given to someone of higher rank.

“Her service was not only crucial to evacuating thousands of women and children, but epitomizes what it means to be a Marine: putting herself in danger for the protection of American values so that others might enjoy them,” Marine First Lt. John Coppola said about Sergeant Rosario in a statement.

For most of military history, women were not allowed in combat. The few admitted to the Marines largely did clerical work. In 2001, at the start of the war in Afghanistan, women Marines were not assigned to gate duty, said Kate Germano, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.

But decades of insurgency wars fought in conservative Muslim countries forced the military to evolve.

The Marine Corps slowly, often grudgingly, opened all combat jobs to women. They now make up about 9 percent of the force. It’s still a small part of the force compared to other military branches, Ms. Germano said, “But every year, more women are out front, bearing the burden more equally with men.”

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