A new photograph has emerged showing hundreds of Afghans packed onto an American military cargo jet after the capital Kabul fell to the Taliban over the weekend, highlighting the desperate rush of some Afghans to leave the country.
The claustrophobic image first published by Defense One on Monday shows the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to move in place for a journey from Kabul to Qatar — a journey that usually takes around three hours.
Among the throng are men, women and children. At the bottom right, a mother holds a child drinking milk from a baby bottle. A few feet from them, another child looks directly at the camera while other passengers around him talk to each other or are on their phones.
In the picture, the US C-17, with the callsign Reach 871, is packed with people who had pulled themselves up onto the cargo plane's half open ramp as it prepared to take off, according to Defense One.
After Afghan forces surrendered on Sunday, huge crowds flocked to the Kabul international airport in an attempt to leave the country, as reports and videos started flooding in of the Taliban celebrating inside the Afghanistan presidential palace.
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Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani had fled the country a few hours earlier to, in his own words, "avoid bloodshed."
Inside Kabul airport, U.S. Air Force planes were already evacuating American diplomats and embassy staff.
President Joe Biden had authorized the deployment of 5,000 U.S. troops to help with "an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped troops during (their) mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance."
On Monday, Biden defended his decision to withdraw troops from the country.
"After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That's why we're still there," President Biden said, adding that the only other option he had would have been to escalate a conflict that "the Afghan forces were not willing to fight."
President Biden launched "Operation Allies Refuge" last week to evacuate Afghans who had co-operated and worked with U.S. and Allied troops stationed in the country. Reuters reports that so far, 1,200 Afghans have been able to leave for the U.S. under the special Special Immigrant Visas program. Hundreds are still waiting for their paperwork to be processed.
The speed with which the Taliban were able to conduct their aggressive take over provincial, and now the national, capitals left many stunned and afraid of a return to a far more conservative way of life that many in urban centers have not seen since 2001.