KABUL, Afghanistan - A firefight outside Kabul’s international airport killed an Afghan soldier early Monday, highlighting the perils of evacuation efforts even as the Taliban warned any attempt by U.S. troops to delay their withdrawal to give people more time to flee would "provoke a reaction."
The shooting came as the Taliban moved to shore up its position and eliminate pockets of armed resistance to the group’s lightning takeover earlier this month. The Taliban said it retook three districts north of the capital seized by opponents the day before and had surrounded Panjshir, the last province that remains out of their control.
People continue to wait around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 23, 2021. (Photo by Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Afghanistan's security forces collapsed in the face of the Taliban advance, despite 20 years of Western aid, training and assistance. Tens of thousands of Afghans have sought to flee the country since, fearing a return to the brutal rule the Taliban imposed the last time it ran Afghanistan. That has led to chaos at the airport in Kabul, the main route out of the country.
U.S. President Joe Biden has not ruled out extending the evacuation beyond Aug. 31, the date he had set for completing the pullout of U.S. forces. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to press Biden for an extension.
But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, in an interview with Sky News, said Aug. 31 is a "red line" and that extending the American presence would "provoke a reaction."
Gunfire broke out early Monday near an entrance to the airport, where at least seven Afghans died a day earlier in a panicked stampede of thousands of people.
Navy Capt. William Urban, a U.S. military spokesman, said an unknown assailant shot at Afghan security forces at the airport's northern gate, leading Afghan, U.S. and allied troops to open fire in response. He said an Afghan soldier was killed and "several Afghans" were wounded.
An Italian humanitarian organization that operates hospitals in Afghanistan said it had treated six patients with bullet wounds from the airport.
There was no comment from the Taliban, who in recent days has fired warning shots and lashed out with batons to try to control crowds swelling into the thousands outside the airport.
The tragic scenes around the airport have transfixed the world. Afghans poured onto the tarmac last week and some clung to a U.S. military transport plane as it took off, later plunging to their deaths. At least seven people died that day, in addition to the seven killed Sunday.
The Taliban blames the chaotic evacuation on the U.S. military and say there's no need for any Afghans to flee. They have pledged to bring peace and security after decades of war and say they won't seek revenge on those who worked with the U.S., NATO and the toppled Afghan government.
Addressing a conference of Muslim clerics, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid urged them to push back against Western "propaganda" about the Taliban and said the U.S. was undermining their rule by sending planes and offering Afghans asylum.
But Mohammad Khalid, another Taliban official addressing the same gathering, struck a more ominous tone, saying "history and Afghans will not forgive those who were trained in the U.S. and Europe and returned to kill their own people."
He said foreign countries should not interfere in education, asking the clerics if they would "tolerate a young girl sitting next to a boy at school." He also praised the role of suicide bombers in forcing the U.S. to withdraw.
The divergent messages raised doubts as to whether the Taliban is fully united behind the more moderate image their leadership is projecting. There have also been reports in recent days of the Taliban hunting down its former enemies.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told the Bild newspaper that the main obstacle to getting people out was the crowds outside the airport.
Asked about Taliban assurances of safe passage to the airport she said: "So far, I can say that what we need is being granted; the danger comes more from these uncontrollable crowds of people."
As the airlift continues, the U.S. government asked for 18 aircraft from American commercial carriers to assist in transporting Afghan refugees to their final destinations after their initial evacuation.
Since Aug. 14, the U.S. has evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of some 37,000 people on military and coalition flights. Those efforts are accelerating: In the 24 hours that ended early Monday, U.S. military flights ferried about 10,400 people to safety, an official said.
Tens of thousands of people — Americans, other foreigners and Afghans who assisted in the war effort — are still waiting to join the airlift, which has been slowed by security issues and U.S. bureaucracy hurdles.
There are also concerns that a local affiliate of the Islamic State group might target the crowds outside the airport with suicide bombers or fire missiles at U.S. aircraft. Military planes have been executing corkscrew landings, and other aircraft have fired flares upon takeoff — both measures used to avoid missile attacks.
The Taliban and IS have different ideologies and have fought in recent years, but one concern about the Taliban's takeover is that they could again shelter extremist groups. The Taliban harbored al-Qaida while it orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, leading to the U.S. invasion in 2001. The Taliban now says it will not allow Afghanistan to be a base for attacks on other countries.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, the Taliban has faced limited armed resistance from fighters in Baghlan province, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Kabul. The anti-Taliban fighters claimed to have seized three districts in the Andarab Valley on Sunday, but the Taliban said Monday that it had cleared them out overnight.
Khair Mohammad Khairkhwa and Abdul Ghani Mahmood, commanders of the anti-Taliban forces, said the recent fighting had caused casualties on both sides and displaced civilians.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said the group's forces have also surrounded nearby Panjshir, the only one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces yet to fall to the Taliban. Several Taliban opponents have gathered there, pledging to resist any attempt to take the province by force.
Mujahid said there had been no fighting in Panjshir yet and that the Taliban is seeking a "peaceful solution."
Faiez reported from Istanbul and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Tameem Akhgar in Istanbul, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jill Lawless in London and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.