US troops could stay in Afghanistan beyond August 31st deadline, Joe Biden says

First group of Afghan refugees coming to Ireland could arrive in Europe within days

At least three people were killed in anti-Taliban protests in the Afghan city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, witnesses said, as the Islamist group moved to consolidate power and Western countries ramped up evacuations from a chaotic Kabul airport.

Thousands of people are trying to flee the country, fearing a return to the austere interpretation of Islamic law imposed during the previous Taliban rule that ended 20 years ago.

Witnesses said armed members of the Taliban were preventing people from getting into the airport compound, including those with the necessary documents to travel.

“It’s a complete disaster. The Taliban were firing into the air, pushing people, beating them with AK47s,” said one person who was trying to get through.

A Taliban official said commanders and soldiers had fired into the air to disperse crowds outside Kabul airport, but told Reuters: “We have no intention to injure anyone.”

US president Joe Biden said on Wednesday night he does not believe it would have been possible to extract American troops from Afghanistan without the type of “chaos” that has been evident in recent days.

Asked in an interview with ABC News if the withdrawal could have been handled better, Mr Biden said: “No...The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.”

Mr Biden also said on Wednesday that US troops would remain in Afghanistan until all Americans are able to leave the country - even if it takes longer than his August 31st deadline to withdraw.

"If there are American citizens left, we're going to stay to get them all out," Mr Biden told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in a Wednesday interview.

Mr Biden said that American intelligence assessments didn't foresee such a rapid advance by the Taliban and collapse of the Afghan military, prompting the US to race to evacuate its citizens and Afghans who aided US troops.

Arrive in Europe

Meanwhile, senior Government sources said that they expect that the number of Afghan refugees accepted by Ireland will increase in the coming weeks.

EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers discussed the migration implications of the Afghan crisis at a meeting on Wednesday, attended by Minister of State James Browne.

Following the meeting Mr Browne said: “I echo the concerns expressed by Minister Coveney this week on the safety of women, girls and minorities . . . This is a sentiment that was shared at today’s roundtable of Home Affairs ministers and it was clear that there is a sense of urgency for the EU to take all appropriate steps to provide assistance where it can.”

It is understood that there is growing concerns in some EU capitals about the potential for an influx of refugees from Afghanistan in the coming months. EU states in the migration frontline, such as Greece, are adamant that the refugee issue is tackled on a Europe-wide basis.

EU policy is likely to seek to support countries closer to Afghanistan in accommodating refugees, said sources.

The first group of Afghan refugees selected to come to Ireland under the State’s refugee protection programme could arrive in Europe on an EU military flight in the coming days.

A group of 200 hundred people, which is expected to predominantly comprise female-led households, are to be accepted into Ireland in coming weeks.

They will be brought to Ireland through the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, which was established in 2015 in response to the Syrian migrant crisis, and will be in addition to those who had previously applied for visas to move to Ireland or to relocate through family reunification, said a Government spokeswoman.

This is a small increase on the 150 humanitarian visas the Government committed to Afghan refugees earlier this week.

The spokeswoman said efforts are under way through negotiations with EU partners to try and get the first cohort out “in the next couple of days” on an Italian military aircraft.

The first 100 Afghans to arrive in Ireland will largely comprise staff from the European External Action Service – the EU’s diplomatic service – and will include finance workers, logsiticians, programme officers, secretaries, guards and cleaners, she said.

Single women

As many of the roles are held by single women, the priority will be to get them out of the country as quickly as possible as they risk being forced to marry insurgents under the Taliban regime, she added.

Priority is also being given to members of the LGBTI community and those at serious risk of harm, she added.

Government officials have been preparing for the arrival of additional Afghan refugees since last Friday while the Department of Foreign Affairs has drawn up a list of names for resettlement, said the spokeswoman. It’s understood several other departments have also requested that names be added to this list.

It is also understood as much security vetting as is possible is being carried out in advance through NGO contacts, with details being forwarded on to gardaí for consideration.

Most of the group will be accommodated in reception and orientation centres in Clonea in Co Waterford, Ballaghaderreen in Co Roscommon and Mosney in Co Meath where there is space available.

Separately, one of the Taliban’s leaders and co-founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, returned to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 10 years and an Islamist official said the leaders would show themselves to the world, unlike in the past when they lived in secret.

“Slowly, gradually, the world will see all our leaders,” said the senior Taliban official.

But thousands of Afghans, many of whom helped US-led foreign forces over two decades, are desperate to leave the country.

About 5,000 diplomats, security staff, aid workers and Afghans have been evacuated from Kabul in the last 24 hours, according to a western official on Wednesday.

The evacuations by military flights will continue around the clock, he said, adding that clearing the chaos outside the airport was a challenge. “It’s absolutely hectic and chaos out there,” he said.

Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Gulf state’s foreign ministry said, after he fled the country as Taliban fighters seized control.

Mr Ghani said he had left Kabul to prevent bloodshed and denied reports he took large sums of money with him as he departed the presidential palace.

Mr Ghani has been criticised bitterly by former ministers for leaving the country suddenly as Taliban forces entered Kabul on Sunday.

“If I had stayed, I would be witnessing bloodshed in Kabul,” he said, his first public comments since it was confirmed he was in the UAE.

He left on the advice of government officials, he added.

The Taliban’s first news briefing since their return to Kabul suggested they would impose their laws more softly than during their harsh 1996-2001 rule.

Women would be allowed to work and study and “will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam”, said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

During their previous incarnation, also guided by Sharia religious law, women were prevented from working, girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burkas to go out.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said “we’ll see what they do, whether it will be according to the pronouncements that they made”.

Echoing that comment and those of other western leaders, British prime minister Boris Johnson said the Taliban would be judged on their actions. “We will judge this regime based on the choices it makes.”

Sceptical Afghans

Many Afghans are sceptical of the Taliban promises. Some said they could only wait and see. “My family lived under the Taliban and maybe they really want to change or have changed but only time will tell and it’s going to become clear very soon,” said Ferishta Karimi, who runs a tailoring shop for women.

Mr Mujahid said the Taliban would not seek retribution against former soldiers and government officials, and were granting an amnesty for ex-soldiers as well as contractors and translators who worked for international forces.

“Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,” he said, adding that there was a “huge difference” between the Taliban now and 20 years ago. – Additional reporting Reuters/Bloomberg

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times