European leaders fail to persuade US to extend time in Afghanistan

European capitals fear at-risk Afghans will be left behind as Washington perseveres with August 31st withdrawal date

European leaders failed to persuade United States president Joe Biden to keep troops at Kabul airport beyond an August 31st deadline at a meeting of the G7, leaving just days to complete evacuations of citizens and Afghan allies.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said there was "no new date" for the end of evacuations after a virtual meeting in which London, Paris and Berlin pushed for Washington to continue its military presence to give more time to extract people who fear for their lives after the Taliban takeover.

The Islamist militant group have offered reassurances that there will not be reprisal killings after they swept to take control of the country in an ignominious end for the US and its allies to a 20-year war.

But the group’s enduring reputation for brutality and executions has spurred tens of thousands of Afghans to desperately seek to leave the country or go into hiding, particularly those who worked with international forces and organisations.

The Taliban declared that Afghans would not longer be allowed to reach the airport on Tuesday, saying that this was necessary to prevent a repeat of fatal crushes but also accusing the US of removing skilled people whose expertise was needed in the country.

"The road that ends at Kabul airport has been blocked. Foreigners can go through it but Afghans are not allowed to take the road," said Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid.

Irish citizens

The Government jet has been deployed to the Middle East to aid in the evacuation of Irish citizens. Its role was described as a “contingency measure” as officials warned that Ireland was unlikely to be able to evacuate all its stranded citizens before Tuesday’s deadline.

Mr Biden said he had ordered his national security team to come up with contingency plans if he determines that a delay is needed.

“The completion by August 31st depends on the Taliban continuing to co-operate, allowing access to the airport for those who we’re transporting out, and no disruption to our operations,” Mr Biden said in an address from the White House Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable, should that become necessary.”

Mr Biden promised his administration would spell out on Wednesday how many Americans remain in Afghanistan.

But Mr Biden said the risks to US troops are growing. He and top White House officials expressed confidence the US could evacuate a substantial number of Americans and Afghan allies from the country in the coming days. So far, he said, about 71,000 people have been evacuated since August 14th.

“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both US and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Mr Biden said, citing the local offshoot of Islamic State.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she had received reports of "summary executions" of civilians and former security forces who were no longer fighting in areas under Taliban control.

She called for strong international action to investigate reports of the recruitment of child soldiers, and restrictions on the rights of women to move around freely and of girls to go to school.

The European Commission announced it had frozen €1 billion in development aid that had been earmarked for Afghan institutions for the next seven years, as it sought assurances on the protection of human rights and treatment of women and girls.

Direct EU humanitarian aid is to be stepped up, however, as fears grow of a worsening risk of hunger and disease among the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict within Afghanistan and to its neighbouring states this year.

The developments follow what two US officials said was a meeting between CIA director William Burns and Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on Monday to discuss the chaos in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s unexpectedly swift takeover. Additional reporting: Reuters, Bloomberg

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times