The airport is the epicenter of a chaotic scramble to escape the country for tens of thousands of people — including international workers, Afghan interpreters and woman now at risk under Taliban rule.
By Sunday morning, the number of people at the airport awaiting flights had swelled to 18,500, with another 2,000 at the gates waiting to get in, a source familiar with the situation told CNN.
One reason for the chaos was the decision to issue electronic visas to Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants, without names or document numbers. The visas were then copied as screen shots and sent by Afghans to thousands of other Afghans who were not eligible for access to the airport, the source said.
Among the harrowing images of families scaling the airport’s boundary walls, a video of a baby being hoisted over the razor wire to a US Marine hit home the desperation on the ground.
The ill baby was treated at a Norwegian hospital based at the airport, and later returned to his parent, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing on Friday.
Crush to escape
The area in and around Kabul’s airport has become increasingly perilous, with almost 20 people believed to have died from stampedes or gunshots in the last week.
Seven Afghan civilians died in crushes near Kabul’s airport on Saturday, a spokesperson for the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) told CNN.
One crush took place outside the airport itself while another happened outside the Baron Hotel, the spokesperson said.
“Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible,” the MoD spokesperson said.
Earlier in the week, Reuters reported that a total of 12 people had also been killed in and around the airport since the Taliban captured Kabul last Sunday. The report, which CNN has not been able to independently verify, cited NATO sources and Taliban officials.
Amid the deteriorating situation, two US defense officials described to CNN the military effort to establish “alternative routes” for people to get to Kabul airport and its access gates, with one saying these new routes will be available to Americans, third party nationals and qualified Afghans.
The Pentagon has been monitoring the situation around the airport, aware that the swelling crowds on the grounds and around the airfield create a target for ISIS-K and other organizations, which may use car bombs or suicide bombers to attack, the second official said. Mortar attacks are another possible threat.
The airport is one of the few escape routes out of the country. And the US is undertaking “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” US President Joe Biden said Friday, acknowledging that, despite the presence of thousands of US troops at Kabul’s airport, the situation remains dangerous.
At least 26,500 people, including Afghans and foreign nationals, have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the Taliban began its advance on Kabul, according to data analyzed by CNN Saturday.
The US has evacuated 17,000 people since August 14, a day before Kabul fell into Taliban hands. Out of those 17,000 people, 2,500 of them are US citizens, Gen. Hank Taylor, Deputy Director of the Joint Staff for Regional Operations said Saturday.
Elsewhere, the British Armed Forces have evacuated nearly 4,000 people since August 13, the UK’s MoD said in a tweet Sunday.
Other countries — including Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Turkey and Australia — have also evacuated people.
At the Ramstein US Air Base in southwestern Germany, flights of evacuees were arriving roughly every 90 minutes over the weekend. With a capacity of 5,000 people, one of the largest US air base in Europe was filling up fast with people sheltering in temporary tents before continuing their journey to the US.
The US military hopes to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people per day, but so far has not met that goal. It faces massive challenges as it works towards an August 31 deadline to leave the country, and Biden has indicated the US may have to stay beyond that date if all Americans have not been evacuated yet.
The pace of the evacuation effort slowed after a bottleneck developed Friday as space at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, one of the leading destinations for flights, neared capacity, forcing the US to scramble for other locations.
Among those criticizing the US withdrawal is former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was leader when his country helped the US push the Taliban from power in 2001.
“The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours,” Blair wrote Saturday in an article published on his Institute for Global Change think tank website.
He added that the decision to pull troops out of the country had been done “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars.'”
CNN’s Sarah Dean, Sharif Paget, Barbara Starr, Oren Liebermann, Ellie Kaufman and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.