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Flights resume at Kabul airport as U.S. aims to extract 22,000 Afghans who helped military

Afghans scaled walls and rushed to the tarmac in a frenzy to flee after the Taliban takeover in the capital.
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Evacuation flights at Kabul airport resumed Monday, hours after desperate Afghans surrounded passenger jets and tried to force themselves onto a plane overnight as panic spread after the Taliban took control of the capital 20 years after having been toppled by U.S. forces.

A video showed a U.S. military aircraft trying to take flight as dozens of Afghans sprinted alongside, apparently in an attempt to stop it from taking off without them. Some even climbed aboard, clinging to the outside as the aircraft gained speed.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the airport, separated by a row of barbed wire, the U.S. rushed to evacuate American diplomats. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said late Sunday that all embassy personnel had been safely evacuated to premises at the airport, whose perimeter is secured by the U.S. military.

Defense Department press secretary John Kirby said Monday that 1,000 more troops would be deployed to Kabul, eventually bringing the total force there to more than 6,000. About 2,500 U.S. troops are on the ground.

Kirby also confirmed two incidents in which U.S. troops fired on armed people at the airport, resulting in the deaths of two of them. Later, Kirby addressed the situation at the airport during a news conference by saying preparations were made to "examine what a noncombatant evacuation would look like."

"It's not a perfect process," Kirby said. "Plans aren't always perfectly predicted."

A U.S. official told NBC News that in the previous 24 hours, initial reports indicated that assailants fired into the crowd at the airport and that U.S. forces returned fire. The official said reports indicated that the gunmen were killed.

The U.S. military suspended operations at Kabul airport for several hours Monday because chaos on the runways meant it was unsafe for planes to land or take off, three U.S. officials said. They resumed hours later, with C-17s landing on the military side of the airport.

Officials said Monday that the government is prepared to take more than 20,000 Afghans who are candidates for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, with them to U.S. bases. A total of 700 people have left the country since Saturday.

"Our military embrace the opportunity to recognize their contributions to combined operations in Afghanistan by welcoming them into the U.S.," said the Pentagon's director for defense intelligence, Garry Reid, adding that officials are working to create capacity to support refugee relocation at temporary sites.

"At this point, we're looking to establish 22,000 spaces," Reid said. "We can expand if we need to."

Civilian flights stopped Sunday because of people on the runways and a radar issue, the officials said, adding that the intention was to reopen the civilian side, too, but that the radar issue needed to be fixed first.

Speaking on NBC News' "TODAY," national security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared to try to play down concerns surrounding dramatic scenes of U.S. Embassy staff members' being evacuated to Kabul's airport.

"To be fair, the helicopter has been the mode of transport from our embassy to the airport for the last 20 years," he said.

Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that he was shocked by the scenes at the Kabul airport and that the U.S. should have anticipated the chaos.

"We're told this is a responsible exit when we're watching what's happening — the tarmac where U.S. air forces transport planes is being overrun with civilians. That airport isn't secure," he said.

President Joe Biden said Monday that he stood by his decision to withdraw, adding that the U.S. mission for going in was "never supposed to be nation-building."

Biden admitted that the situation deteriorated quicker than his administration had anticipated after it inherited a withdrawal deal negotiated by former President Donald Trump.

"If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now is the right decision," Biden said. "American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, the Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves."

The deployment of 6,000 troops will be focused on securing the airfield to get U.S. citizens out of Afghanistan, as well as supporting the safe departure of U.S. allies, Biden said. Addressing criticism of America's apparent failure to remove Afghans who supported U.S. interests, Biden blamed the lack of a wide-scale evacuation effort on resistance from the Afghan government.

"I know there were concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians," Biden said. "So, part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave it, still hopeful for their country. And part of it is because the Afghan government ... discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering — as they said — a crisis of confidence."

While the U.S. made for the exits, neighboring countries and U.S. rivals China and Russia looked set to try to capitalize on the chaos.

China has said it is willing to forge "friendly relations" with the militants. Russia said Sunday that it did not plan to evacuate its embassy in Kabul and that it would "now be talking" to the Taliban political office in Doha, Qatar.

Image: Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul
Afghans climb atop a plane at the airport in Kabul on Monday as thousands gathered at the city's airport.Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images

Reuters reported that five people were killed in the chaos at the airport, citing witnesses. NBC News could not immediately verify the reporting independently.

In the rest of the city, people said an eerie calm had taken over the streets after the storm that saw the militants take the crown jewel of Afghan cities. Most shops were closed, fewer people were out on the street compared to Sunday, and overhead a frenzy of aviation activity could be heard, residents said.

Many Afghans are concerned that the militants will reimpose the brutal and austere rule over Afghanistan that all but eliminated women's rights and persecuted minorities.

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"Everybody is panicking," said an Afghan who recently moved to Kabul from Jalalabad because no one in the capital knows he worked for the Americans as an interpreter. "Everybody is trying to get to the airport."

The 22-year-old man said he would not try his luck there because he knew the Americans would not let him in. Instead, he is patiently waiting for his Special Immigrant Visa to be finalized.

"I can't take somebody else's place, somebody else's flight. I need to wait," he said. "It's dangerous to go to the airport."

Not everyone can be patient, and some do not even have roofs to shelter under.

The desperately poor — who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital — remained in parks and open spaces in the city. The United Nations said thousands of people continue to be displaced into Kabul and other urban areas, and at least 17,600 internally displaced people need humanitarian assistance.

Foreigners also scrambled to leave the country or sat tight waiting to hear from their governments.

"It's like a Covid lockdown," said Wayne Parry, an Australian citizen who said he got stuck in Afghanistan on a work trip. "Everyone is just waiting and is obviously nervous."

Parry, 50, said he was staying in a guesthouse in Kabul as he waited for updates from Australia's diplomatic staff.

"We're holed up here. We can't go outside," said Parry, of Melbourne. "There's a sense of resignation because the Taliban has got what they want, so there's nothing any of us can do except sit and wait."