LONDON — European leaders on Thursday pledged to continue Afghanistan evacuation operations in the wake of what one called a “barbaric” terror attack at Kabul airport that left civilians and U.S. troops dead.
But just what shape, exactly, those operations would take was left unclear given the security situation, the damage to the main airport entry gate and a rapidly dwindling number of countries still conducting airlifts. Western troops must depart Afghanistan by August 31, and countries were already drawing down their presence even before the two bombings that ripped through throngs of people trying to flee following the Taliban takeover.
Still, the vows came from across the Continent, even from some countries that have already completed their evacuation missions.
In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government would “continue with” its operation to evacuate British nationals as well as Afghans who worked for the U.K. or who are deemed vulnerable. And French President Emmanuel Macron said France would work with allies until “the very last minute,” acknowledging that France had 20 buses of dual nationals and Afghans stuck outside the airport hoping to get out.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also pledged assistance, despite confirming that Germany had ended its military evacuations earlier in the day.
“We will not forget those who could not be brought to safety through the [military] airlift,” she said. “We will continue efforts so they can leave.”
The reactions rolled in in the hours after the bombings rocked Kabul airport, the last Western-controlled airfield in Afghanistan and the center of evacuation efforts. The Taliban swept through Afghanistan earlier this month as Western forces prepared to leave the country after 20 years in the country.
One explosion hit the Abbey Gate, where U.S. personnel until recently welcomed American citizens to board evacuation flights. Another scarred the Baron Hotel, which British military and diplomatic personnel were using to process Afghans seeking to enter the U.K.
An ISIS militant wearing a suicide vest was responsible for the Abbey Gate bombing, two U.S. officials and a person familiar with the situation told POLITICO, detonating around 5 p.m. local time.
In the immediate aftermath, NATO troops were ordered to leave the airport gates immediately, two people said. Yet later on Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted that the “priority remains to evacuate as many people to safety as quickly as possible.” The military alliance did not offer more details when reached for comment.
The attack came just hours after defense officials in the U.S., U.K. and Australia issued urgent warnings about imminent terrorist threats from the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, warning their citizens to stay away from the airport.
Speaking after convening a meeting of the U.K.’s emergency committee to discuss the incident, Johnson said his government had been “prepared for” such violence. He called the bombings “a barbaric terrorist attack” but said the government had judged that evacuations could go on for now.
“The conclusion is that we’re able to continue with the program in the way that we’ve been running it, according to the timetable we’ve got,” he told Sky News. “That’s what we’re going to do because the overwhelming majority of those who are eligible have now been extracted from Afghanistan.”
Johnson also reiterated a call for the Taliban to not block anyone from leaving, a plea that comes as the militant group has started discouraging — and in some cases physically stopping — Afghans from departing.
Other leaders struck a similar note.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez tweeted after the attacks that Madrid is still “working to evacuate the most number of people possible,” but did not go into further detail. Spanish newspaper El País reported the country is trying to finish its evacuation operation by Friday.
European Council President Charles Michel said on Twitter that “securing safe passage to the airport remains vital.”
Elsewhere, European officials indicated they would need to get creative for any future extractions.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin is working “intensely” to find new ways to evacuate “those in Afghanistan for whom we bear responsibility,” which he said could include land routes into neighboring countries or even civilian flights in the future out of Kabul airport.
For the most part, European countries say they have already pulled out the vast majority of their citizens and others on evacuation lists. But scores remain.
Spain’s defense ministry said it had close to 50 soldiers on the ground. And Sweden’s foreign minister tweeted that the country had “a large number of people inside the airport that we are about to evacuate.” The EU said it had a small team left on the ground in Afghanistan, and that there were some local Afghan staff still trying to get out as well.
And speaking after the attacks during a visit to Dublin, Macron acknowledged the 20 buses of dual French nationals and Afghans that were awaiting departure.
Pressed by a reporter on whether the United States had betrayed its “moral responsibility” to ensure all NATO allies are evacuated from Afghanistan, Macron said he would not use the word “betrayal.”
But he did say U.S. President Joe Biden’s insistence on sticking to the August 31 deadline had made the extractions difficult, given that it came just days after the Taliban seized control on August 15.
“Nobody expected such a rapid and brutal situation in Kabul,” Macron said. “So I think de facto all of us are put in a situation where we cannot protect all the Afghan people we wanted to protect.”
Earlier on Thursday, Britain’s Armed Forces Minister James Heappey was blunter.
“We won’t get everybody out,” he told LBC, a British radio station. “There will be people on your TV screens on the weekend who have been left behind.”
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