Afghan people climb up on a plane and sit by the door as they wait at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, August 16, 2021.

Afghan people climb up on a plane and sit by the door as they wait at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images

Panic at Kabul Airport Imperils Evacuation Flights; At Least Two Afghans Dead

U.S. warns that any attacks on evacuation will meet “a forceful response,” but how long will the Taliban hold off?

Updated: 6:39 p.m.

The U.S. military temporarily froze all flights out of Hamid Karzai International Airport on Monday as anger and desperation rose among Afghans during the Taliban takeover. The decision came after a crowd chased a departing C-17 airlifter down the runway and unknown gunmen twice shot at U.S. troops at the airport.

Airlift operations on the military side of the airport resumed by late Monday, allowing several additional military aircraft to land, though the civilian side remained closed. 

“There are no flights coming or going, military or civilian, and this is because of large crowds that are still on the tarmac, on the southern side of the field, the civilian side of the field,” Kirby said before U.S. troops restored enough order for planes to operate. 

So far, the Taliban has not attacked the airport, even as their forces entered other government facilities in the capital city. The head of U.S. Central Command Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie has been in direct talks with the Taliban in Doha, Kirby confirmed. 

“He issued a very clear and unambiguous warning that any attack on our operations and our people would be met with a forceful response,” Kirby said. 

A Taliban spokesman said on MSNBC on Monday that the group has told U.S. officials that they will not attack Americans as they move into Kabul. Suhail Shaheen also said the Taliban will not block anyone from leaving Afghanistan, including those who helped the U.S. or Afghan governments. 

"We will not punish them...will not pose arrest to them, their property, or their life,” Shaheen said. “They are welcome” to go.

A video posted to Twitter on Monday purported to show a departing C-17 mobbed by hundreds of young men, some trying to cling to the plane as it took off. Later videos posted to Twitter showed bodies falling from the plane as it ascended. 

Kirby said he could not confirm the authenticity of the later videos but said the lack of security around the jets was the reason flights have been temporarily halted. 

“We obviously don't want anyone else to get hurt,” he said. 

Kirby said U.S. forces had been shot at and returned fire in two separate incidents, killing two people. He said he had no further details. 

The number of U.S. troops in or heading to Kabul to protect the U.S. evacuation has risen to about 6,000, Kirby said. That includes the roughly 1,000 troops of the last of three 82nd Airborne Division battalions rerouted from their previous destination of Kuwait. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered that final battalion redirected on Monday because of the increased desperation of Afghans trying to flee the Taliban, Kirby said.

About 500 troops were expected to arrive in Kabul on Monday. 

Once evacuation flights resume, the U.S. should be able “to get 5,000 [people] or maybe even more out per day on literally a couple dozen or more sorties per day,” Kirby said. 

The military is also ramping up to house up to 22,000 Afghan special immigration visa applicants and their families and other Afghans they identify as “vulnerable” under Taliban rule at bases across the United States.

How long will these new U.S. forces stay? 

President Joe Biden had directed troops to be fully withdrawn by Aug. 31, and that is still the goal, Kirby said — adding that the changing security situation on the ground could affect that.

“We'll just have to take it as it comes,” he said. 

Kevin Baron contributed to this report.