The Taliban have escorted Americans to the gates the Kabul airport as they sought to escape Afghanistan.
Two defense officials told CNN that the US military negotiated a secret arrangement with the Taliban.
According to one of the officials, US special operations forces set up a “secret gate” at the airport and established “call centers” to guide Americans through the evacuation process.
It was also reported that the arrangement with the Taliban “worked beautifully,” Americans involved in an unofficial network dedicated to helping Americans and vulnerable Afghans said there were problems — particularly in the beginning — as the Taliban turned away US citizens and legal permanent residents the militant group was supposed to allow through.
The two US defense officials said Americans were notified to gather at pre-set “muster points” close to the airport where the Taliban would check their credentials and take them a short distance to a gate manned by American forces who were standing by to let them inside amid huge crowds of Afghans seeking to flee.
The US troops were able to see the Americans approach with their Taliban escorts as they progressed through the crowds, presumably ready to intervene in case anything happened.
Multiple sources in the US who were in contact with people trying to escape reported that American citizens and passport holders in Kabul were in disbelief that they were being told they would receive safe passage from the Taliban.
Many thought they were misunderstanding the directions and sought clarification.
The stateside sources said they had to assure those attempting to use a muster point at the Ministry of Interior Affairs that the Taliban would indeed allow them through.
The two US defense officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the arrangements, which have not been disclosed until now because the US was concerned about Taliban reaction to any publicity, as well as the threat of attacks from ISIS-K if its operatives had realized Americans were being escorted in groups, the officials said.
The ISIS offshoot, a sworn enemy of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for a suicide attack at a gate to the Kabul airport last week that killed 13 American service members and more than 170 Afghans.
The US has had military and diplomatic contact with the Taliban for years through political talks and deconfliction efforts, but the secret evacuation arrangement between the militant group and the US military reflects an unprecedented level of tactical coordination. While it’s not known whether there is any connection, CIA Director William Burns paid a highly unusual visit last week to Kabul, where he met with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar as the Biden administration struggled to get airlift operations running smoothly.
Throughout the evacuation, Biden administration officials stressed that the Taliban were cooperating and senior officials repeatedly emphasized that the militant group had committed to provide “safe passage” for Americans.
The Taliban escort missions happened “several times a day,” according to one of the officials. One of the key muster points was a Ministry of Interior building just outside the airport’s gates where nearby US forces were readily able to observe the Americans approach. Americans were notified by various messages about where to gather.
“It worked, it worked beautifully,” one official said of the arrangement.
But Americans who created an unofficial network to help Afghans and Americans find a route out of Afghanistan heard differently from the vulnerable men, women and families they were trying to guide to safety.
In some instances, Americans and green card holders were turned away at the Interior Ministry muster point during the course of evacuations, according to people in the network who were in touch with several Afghans attempting passage through the secret route.
In one instance, the network described failed escape attempts where several US citizens and legal permanent residents, or green card holders, were denied access by the Taliban at the Interior Ministry rendezvous point.
It’s unknown how broadly the Taliban’s refusal to admit some people with passports or green cards into the Interior Ministry muster point affected US efforts to evacuate those people as they tried to escape Kabul.
US forces and officials were not present at the muster point and CNN is relying on reports from American officials off site, from people who attempted passage and their stateside contacts, including family members, former military and intelligence officials and others who lent support to Afghan Americans and Afghans attempting escape.
It’s also unclear if Americans and green card holders who got turned away at the Interior Ministry eventually made it to the airport during subsequent attempts at passage through the ministry or through another route to the airport.
At least one American citizen turned away at the muster point had to secure an alternative way to enter the airport for himself and his family, which included children, according to one network of Americans supporting other Americans and Afghans trying to escape.
Another family of six green card holders, including small children, was turned away at the muster point but was able to gain entry at the Interior Ministry muster point another night. Their family member in the US reported that once they arrived at the airport, they lined up in an organized fashion to show their documents and were processed in an orderly manner.
That family flew from Kabul to a US base overseas in a flight facilitated by the US military and are awaiting return to the United States.
Initially, the process for getting people evacuated through the Interior Ministry muster point was bumpy, according to one network of US-based Americans who were communicating with a green card holder in Kabul who exited via the rendezvous point early on.
Source: News Agencies