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WASHINGTON — Chaos around the Kabul airport was so bad this week that the U.S. military was forced to use three helicopters to transport 169 Americans into the complex from a building just 656 feet away, the Pentagon said on Friday.
As Western nations struggled to ramp up the pace of evacuations from Afghanistan amid the chaos and reports of Taliban violence, U.S. President Joe Biden confronted criticism about his administration's planning for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the Islamic militants' swift takeover of the country.
"I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies," Biden told reporters after making a speech from the White House. "... As a matter of fact, the exact opposite I've got ... we're acting with dispatch, we're acting, committing to what we said we would do."
Thousands of desperate Afghans clutching papers, children and some belongings thronged Kabul airport where gun-toting Taliban members urged those without travel documents to go home. In and around the airport, at least 12 people have been killed since Sunday, NATO and Taliban officials said.
U.S. evacuation flights from Kabul's airport stopped for more than six hours on Friday while U.S. authorities looked for countries willing to accept people fleeing Afghanistan. They did resume later in the day.
In his remarks, Biden referred to the 169 Americans transported by the military. Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby later said the decision was made to use the helicopters on Thursday because the group was unable to get to the gate from a nearby hotel to the airport.
"The plan was simply (for them) to walk through the gate, but there was a large crowd established outside the Abbey gate, a crowd that not everybody had confidence in, in terms of their ability to walk through and so local commanders on the scene took the initiative and flew these helicopters out there to pick them up," Kirby said.
Biden insisted every American who wanted to would be evacuated, and that about 18,000 people had been airlifted out since July.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the situation outside Kabul airport as "very dire and difficult," as several member countries pressed for evacuations to continue beyond an Aug. 31 U.S. deadline.
Biden has not backed off that deadline, despite calls — internationally and at home from his fellow Democrats as well as opposition Republicans — to keep troops in Afghanistan as long as necessary to bring home every American.
Biden said he could not predict what the final outcome would be in Afghanistan, where the United States and allies have waged a 20-year war. But he promised to work with other countries to set "harsh conditions" for any cooperation or recognition of the Taliban, based on their human rights record.
Protests and violence
"They're looking to gain some legitimacy, they're going to have to figure out how they're going to retain that country," he said. "And there's going to be some harsh conditions, strong conditions we're going to apply that will depend on ... how well they treat women and girls, how they treat their citizens."
Although the Taliban has sought to present a more moderate face since its lightning takeover of the country last week, the group ruled with an iron fist from 1996-2001 before being toppled by U.S.-led forces for sheltering al Qaeda militants behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Individual Afghans and international aid and advocacy groups have reported harsh retaliation against protests, and roundups of those who formerly held government positions, criticized the Taliban or worked with Americans.
Former officials told harrowing tales of hiding from the Taliban as armed gunmen went from door to door. One family of 16 described running to the bathroom, lights off and children's mouths covered, in fear for their lives.
"Those who may be in danger have no clear way out," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said, urging neighboring countries to keep borders open.
Biden again insisted that the U.S.-funded and -armed Afghan military had been expected to put up more of a fight.
"The overwhelming consensus was that ... the Afghan forces, they were not going to leave. They were not going to just abandon and they would put down their arms and take off," Biden said, arguing that the United States has no more interest in the country with al-Qaida defeated.
The Taliban called for unity, asking imams at Friday prayers to persuade people not to leave.
A witness said several people were killed in the eastern city of Asadabad on Thursday when the Taliban fired on a protest. There were similar shows of defiance in two other eastern cities — Jalalabad and Khost — coinciding with celebrations of Afghanistan's 1919 independence from British control.
"The Taliban are facing the new reality of Afghanistan that Afghans are not the same Afghans of 20 years ago," Barakat Rahmati, Afghanistan's deputy ambassador to Qatar, told Reuters.
"Afghans, inclusive of men and women, held protests in Kabul despite a Taliban gun being pointed to them. They are holding protests against injustice. They are defending their identity and their flag."
The U.S. State Department announced that nearly a dozen countries, from Europe to the Middle East, would allow flights with people evacuated from Kabul to land. Canada also said it would consider taking in additional refugees on behalf of the United States or other allies.