U.S. Troops Kill Two Armed Afghans At Unsecured Kabul Airport, Thousands More Being Sent (Updated)

The airport has been overrun, with some Afghans clinging to departing transports. Now, the U.S. says it's sending thousands more troops to secure it.

A US soldier (C) point his gun towards an Afghan passenger at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the group's feared hardline brand of Islamist rule.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport shot and killed two armed individuals in self-defense earlier today, according to the Pentagon. This follows reports that the American forces had determined the facility and its flightline were not secure, and shut down all operations there, including military evacuation flights, after throngs of Afghan civilians breached the perimeter. You can read more about the chaos that's been unfolding at the airport as many Afghans continue to hope to escape the country, and its new Taliban rulers, by air in The War Zone's earlier coverage of this worsening crisis here.

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times were among those to first report the fatal shootings at the airport in Kabul, which has been transformed into an island of foreign military presence in a country now almost entirely under Taliban control, with U.S. forces now attempting to secure at least their operating areas and the runway. It's unclear at present who these armed individuals were and, while they could have been members of the Taliban, it's equally possible that they were Afghan civilians hoping to somehow muscle their way onto a flight out of Afghanistan.  

Multiple reports in the past day or so have said that U.S. military officials have been engaging directly with Taliban representatives in and outside of Afghanistan about the situation, and warning them against interfering in any way with their activities at the airport. There have also been reports of persistent gunfire outside of the airport, including Taliban members taking potshots at departing aircraft.

As The War Zone, among others, has already reported, Afghans at Hamid Karzai International Airport have been showing signs of increasing desperation, with horrifying scenes having already emerged, including of people clinging to the outside of U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster III cargo plane as it took off and then falling to the ground, likely to their deaths. There were previous unconfirmed reports that as many as five other people may have died on the ground, as well, under unclear circumstances.

All of this had led the U.S. military to conclude that the airport was no longer secure enough to continue even military evacuation operations earlier today. It's not clear if this assessment may have changed in the intervening time. Military forces from other countries have at least been working to stage closer to Afghanistan as part of efforts to help their own nationals and others evacuate the country. 

The present status of commercial aviation activities at Hamid Karzai International Airport is also unclear. A Turkish Airlines Boeing 777, flight TK707, did manage to leave earlier in the day before the latest closure. The Pentagon denied yesterday that it had completely closed the airport to all current and future commercial flights, as had been implied from earlier reporting, but did acknowledge sporadic stoppages. The situation has changed dramatically for the worse since then, obviously.

Earlier today, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a warning notice regarding the airspace over Kabul and surrounding areas, declaring them to be "uncontrolled." It also noted that all air traffic control responsibilities had been passed to the U.S. military, something the Pentagon had previously announced, but it isn't clear how or even if the U.S. military is dealing with the commercial flights.

At the time of writing, the U.S. government's basic operational plan for the ongoing evacuations appears to be mostly unchanged, though the expectation now is that the American force at Hamid Karzai International Airport will swell to 7,000 personnel in the coming days. This reflects the announcement just today of the planned deployment of yet another 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to Kabul. This force will, hopefully, then be able to help facilitate the movement of up to 5,000 people out of the country every day. At the same time, it's unclear how the airport will be able to receive more U.S. personnel and how they will safely depart once the mission is done.

Who those evacuees will necessarily be is less clear. The U.S. government has consistently said it working to its employees, as well as third-party diplomatic staff, out of the country. Regular American citizens in Afghanistan are still being advised to shelter in place, rather than attempt to make their way to the airport. 

American authorities are also now looking at potentially airlifting tens of thousands of Afghans who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), due to past work with the U.S. government that has put them at risk of reprisals from the Taliban, to the United States. However, reports yesterday said that, at least for the time being, that flights of SIV candidates out of Afghanistan had been effectively suspended to focus first on getting Americans onto evacuation flights.

In the meantime, there are reports that Taliban members are going door to door in Kabul looking for government officials, among others, adding to concerns about what the future might hold for many Afghans under the group's hardline rule. Those fears are not limited to Afghans in the country's capital, either, nor is the accompanying sense of desperation. 

The government of neighboring Uzbekistan has confirmed that its air defense forces had shot down an Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft that crossed into its airspace. The pilots were both able to eject, but their fate is now uncertain, with the U.S. government reportedly trying to help secure their safety and prevent their potential deportation back to Afghanistan. 

Earlier this year, a report emerged the Taliban had stepped up an assassination campaign targeting Afghan Air Force pilots and it is very likely these two individuals were trying to flee the country in their plane. Online flight tracking software had also shown what appeared to be similar flights out of Afghanistan into Tajiistaken yesterday, where they appeared to be denied permission to land.

Back in Kabul, whatever the U.S. government's current evacuations plan might be, the crisis at Hamid Karzai International Airport is seriously deepening. The ability of American troops to maintain a secure perimeter is already clearly in question and any debris left from mobs of civilians on the runway could severely flight operations. There are also growing questions about exactly how the thousands of incoming troops, and their materiel, to include the helicopters that have supported the evacuation operations in Kabul, will ultimately be extracted after all is said and done.  

In addition, the ability of foreign military forces to conduct activities without the threat of a more concerted attack continues to be entirely at the whim of the Taliban, a terrible position to be in on all levels. How firm the group's command and control is over its members in Kabul is unclear, as well, no matter what deals have been struck about the status of the airport. Desperate Afghan civilians who may be increasingly driven to violence themselves only add more risks for an already tense situation to become even more disastrous than it is right now.

AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Members of the Taliban on top of a captured US-supplied Humvee at a position outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

With all this in mind, whoever the armed individuals who reportedly attacked American troops were, the incident is another worrying indication of where things may now be headed in this deepening crisis.

We will continue to update this page as new information comes available. 

Update 2:00 PM EST:

Satellite imagery showing the chaos today at Hamid Karzai International Airport has begun to emerge.

A new Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) has also appeared warning any aircraft bound for Kabul to make sure to have as much fuel as possible due to concerns that available stocks at Hamid Karzai International Airport may be running low. This highlights the very real and increasingly likely possibility that U.S. forces will need to airlift in additional fuel, a very costly proposition, in the coming days to sustain the ongoing evacuation operations.

There are now also reports that at least 46 Afghan Air Force aircraft, including fixed-wing types and helicopters, have been forced to land in Uzbekistan. If true, this would reflect roughly a quarter of that service's flyable aircraft, as of July. However, it is important to note that, just in the past few weeks, reports had already begun to emerge the number of usable aircraft available to Afghan forces had shrunk considerably due to various issues, including a lack of trained maintainers. Pictures and video from the Taliban's advances across the country had shown the group's members capturing a number of clearly non-flyable airframes.

Separately, the Pentagon has confirmed that it has not carried out any airstrikes in Afghanistan for several days and that the U.S. military's primary focus now is on the evacuation operations at the airport in Kabul.

Images have also been circulating on social media suggesting that one of the U.S. military's top-secret stealthy Black Hawk helicopters might be involved in the evacuation operations in Kabul. However, the complete video from which the still frames in question were taken makes clear that the aircraft in question is a typical Army UH-60. Multiple regular Black Hawks were observed flying around Kabul yesterday as evacuations began.

Update 3:10 PM EST:

Al Jazeera is reporting that the Taliban have been blocking people in Kabul from entering Hamid Karzai International Airport, in some cases firing warning shots into the air. This could account for some of the gunfire heard within the airport.

That same outlet has also reported that three German military aircraft carrying the country's own evacuation force have had to divert to Uzbekistan due to ongoing issues at the airport in Kabul. A Turkish A400M airlifter also appears to have diverted to Pakistan after attempting to land.

Update 3:55 PM EST:

A picture has emerged of the inside of a jam-packed C-17A Globemaster III transport aircraft. While the circumstances behind the photograph, and when and where it was taken, are unclear, the suggestion is that this is one of the recent evacuation flights out of Kabul. Though there are a very large number of people on board, it's not clear if this is from the reported U.S. Air Force flight with 800 evacuees on board. It may also be of a heavily laden C-17A belonging to the United Arab Emirates that left Afghanistan's capital yesterday. You can read more about both of those flights in The War Zone previous reporting here.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com