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Children and adults on their arrival in Dubai after being evacuated from Afghanistan by the Spanish government, on August 20, 2021. © 2021 Europa Press via AP

Thousands of Afghans fearing persecution by the Taliban remain waiting outside Kabul’s airport, or sheltering in their homes, hoping be evacuated out of Afghanistan. But the United States-led multinational airlift is about to wrap up. Despite entreaties from other G7 leaders, including the United Kingdom and European allies, and members of the US Congress, President Joe Biden has stated that the US will not extend its military presence at the airport beyond August 31. Flights for Afghans desperately trying to flee will likely end even sooner, as operations shift from ferrying vulnerable civilians to drawing down military presence. 

Though Biden alluded to possible contingency plans, the current focus is on ending the evacuation effort and packing up US personnel to go home. Even people approved for travel and on lists for evacuation may be left behind. French officials have said unless an extension is negotiated, their evacuation operations will have to stop Thursday. After getting an intelligence briefing, US lawmakers told the press that getting all Americans and allies out of the country by August 31 was unlikely. The Taliban’s rapid takeover hampered capacities to evacuate the tens of thousands seeking to leave the country. Many struggled to get past Taliban checkpoints or maneuver through crowds at the airport, while others were never added to flight manifests. Many of those at risk who are outside of Kabul have been unable to enter the city, as travel across the country remains dangerous due to checkpoints.

The multinational airlift has evacuated tens of thousands of citizens of foreign countries, US and NATO personnel, and Afghan civilians since July, but many more at-risk Afghans are waiting. Those who need rescue are not only people who worked directly for US or allied forces, but human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, journalists, court officials, LGBTI people, and members of some minority communities such as the Hazara. Many of these people could still be evacuated, especially those already approved for travel and whose names are on evacuation lists.

The evacuation needs more time and the US needs to be doing more to help at-risk Afghans trying to flee. Admittedly, that won’t be easy, especially after Taliban spokesman Zabihulla Mujahid’s August 24 warning that Afghans gathered at the airport should disperse and no longer attempt to leave the country. The US and other countries should negotiate with the Taliban to keep this path open a little longer. The Taliban too need to ensure safe passage for those who wish to travel, now and once international forces depart.

President Biden has said human rights are at the center of his foreign policy. The last few days suggest otherwise. The US should commit to evacuating as many at-risk Afghans as possible – and give that phrase meaning.

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