The risk of a terrorist attack at Kabul airport is increasing every day, the head of Nato has warned, as he described the “dilemma” countries faced in deciding when to terminate efforts by foreign troops to airlift people out of Afghanistan.
Speaking a day after Joe Biden, US president, opted to stick to his plan to withdraw US troops by the end of the month despite European opposition, Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, said the terrorist threat faced at the airport was not “theoretical” but “a real danger”.
“On the one hand we would like to have as much time as possible to get as many people out as possible,” Stoltenberg said in an interview. “At the same time . . . if we stay beyond [the] August 31 [deadline], especially if we don’t have at least a kind of tacit consent of the Taliban, the danger increases [of] attacks.”
Within hours of the secretary-general’s warning, the UK government issued new guidance to British nationals in Afghanistan advising against travelling to Kabul airport because of the “ongoing and high threat” of terrorist attack.
“If you are in the area of the airport, move away to a safe location and await further advice,” the advice read. It added that travel by road is “extremely dangerous”, and warned of “allegations of people being mistreated” on their way to the airport.
British troops have re-enforced barriers around their handling centre for evacuees at Kabul airport as a bulwark against the terror threat. Before the travel warning was issued, a military official said the threat of an attack by Isis-K, an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan, was considered “very high”. The group’s tactics typically include suicide bombings, vehicle bombs and small-arms fire attacks.
Stoltenberg described the current effort as one of the biggest evacuation attempts in history, adding that roughly 20,000 people a day were being airlifted from the country, including a growing number of Afghans. When the military process was over, Nato would continue to work on getting people out via commercial flights, and would press the Taliban to open up land routes as well, he said.
The main challenge Nato members faced was getting people into the airport, rather than operating the flights, he said. “Even if we decided to extend, then we will still need to get people into the airport, and the area around the airport, Kabul and the rest of the country is controlled by the Taliban.”
At least 4,500 US citizens have been evacuated since August 14, Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said on Wednesday, and approximately 1,500 are believed to still be there. Of those, about 500 have expressed a desire to leave, Blinken said.
“It is hard to overstate the complexity and danger of this effort,” Blinken said. “We are operating in a hostile environment, in a city and country now controlled by the Taliban, with a very real possibility of an Isis-K attack.”
Whatever happens in Afghanistan, North America and Europe have to stand together.
Brigadier Dan Blanchford, who is leading the UK evacuation effort at Kabul airport, said that British soldiers were “redoubling” their efforts to identify those most at risk and bring them to the airport as the August 31 deadline approached. Blanchford said evacuees had been “subjected to some pretty harrowing and extreme conditions” on the way to the airport.
More than 82,300 people have been evacuated since August 14 from Afghanistan, according to the White House, all facilitated by the continued US troop presence. The UK said it has evacuated 10,291 people, including 6,308 Afghan partners, 341 embassy staff, and 2,570 British nationals and their families. About 2,000 Afghans who are eligible for resettlement in the UK, including translators, drivers and others who worked alongside British forces, were still hoping to get out, a UK military official said.
The US decision to withdraw completely from Afghanistan has sparked renewed questions over the future of the Nato alliance and its heavy reliance on the US. But Stoltenberg insisted that the “transatlantic bond” remained critical for a credible defence of Europe.
The European Union alone could never defend Europe, he said, pointing to the large share of Nato defence spending that comes from outside Europe and the importance of non-EU countries in defending the region.
“Whatever happens in Afghanistan, North America and Europe have to stand together, and that was the clear message from all Nato allied countries at the foreign ministerial meeting last week,” he said.
“We are faced with a shifting global balance of power, a more aggressive Russia and the rise of China. And as long as North America and Europe stand together we are able to tackle all these challenges,” he said. “This is important for Europe but it is also important for the United States.”
Video: How the 20-year war changed Afghanistan | FT Film