The Afghan Exodus Faces a Race Against Time



Key Takeaway

- As the Taliban rejected extension of the deadline for the withdrawal and evacuation in the war-torn country, the Afghanistan exodus now faces a race against time in the shadow of the ISIS terror threat. The ongoing exit campaign remains one of the largest airlift efforts of the 21st century.

- Geopolitically, Hamid Karzai International Airport, previously known as Kabul International Airport, is the main link of Afghanistan, a mountainous landlocked country, with the rest of the world.

- Total evacuation of all foreign personnel and troops before the end of August seems highly unlikely. This is mainly attributed to the disorganized management of the operation as well as the lack of logistical capacity, stemming from the Taliban’s swift advances and the collapse of the Afghan political-military leadership. The terror strikes will further trouble the evacuation plans.

- At the time of writing, the Taliban are extending their sphere of influence around Kabul and the airport by amassing militias and setting frequent checkpoints. Following the August 26th ISIS attack, the Taliban are likely to harden their stance in the capital in order to avoid any signs of weakness.

- On top of all the risk factors, there is the ISIS threat. The Salafi network has already perpetrated terror attacks outside the international airport premises amidst the evacuation. ISIS Khorasan has set sleeper cells in the capital as the Taliban fought the Afghan Security Forces. We assess that the wildcard scenario would be the ISIS Khorasan bringing man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to the hot zone, taking advantage of the power vacuum.

- Currently, the G7 countries and the U.S. are striving to establish a constructive dialogue with the Taliban before the end of August, namely, the withdrawal deadline. According to press sources, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William Burns, met with the Taliban’s senior leader Abdul Ghani Baradar[1]. Meanwhile, the G7 leaders are trying to come together for a joint strategy to engage with the Taliban[2].

- Another key issue is the influx of Afghan refugees as the Taliban took over. At present, the country is fast entering a set of interrelated humanitarian crises with a profound regional spillover effect that can extend to Europe.


Kabul International Airport in Trouble: The Taliban and More

- On August 15th, the Taliban announced that they captured Kabul and declared the end of the war in Afghanistan. Although the prospect of Kabul falling was raised, the global intelligence community did not anticipate such a fast Taliban victory.

- Since the U.S. decision to withdraw, the Taliban have maintained its ‘fight-and-talk’ approach and escalated military activity[3]. At present, in their advantageous position, the Taliban have little interest in sharing power in Afghanistan. The declaration of a firm deadline for the withdrawal of the US troops changed the Taliban’s calculations and stance towards negotiations.

- On August 24th, the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid reaffirmed that allowing the evacuation of foreigners after the August 31st deadline would not be welcome. Worse, Mujahid clearly indicated that the Taliban do not intend to allow the Afghans to leave the country.[4]

- At present, follow-on ISIS attacks remain the most imminent and game-changer threat. The terrorist network is estimated to have some 2,000 fighters in all over Afghanistan, with its Khorasan ‘province’ being one of the successful franchises around the globe with a considerable powerbase in Kabul[5]. At the time of writing, an explosion pounded the Abbey Gate and the Baron Hotel near the international airport, claiming the lives of civilians and American military personnel.[6]


Explosions reported near Abbey Gate, 26 August 2021, US Department of State, CNN[7]

- The recent terror strikes have already proven the ISIS’ operational capabilities in the Afghan capital. In the worst case scenario, any terror attack using MANPADS would be very concerning. Interestingly, some aircraft were filmed using flares over the Kabul International Airport, suggesting digested intelligence about the MANPADS threat.


An A400M Atlas cargo transport & airlifter aircraft deploying decoys when departing from Kabul International Airport[8]

- Crippled by restricted intelligence capabilities on the ground, the U.S. is striving to find alternative routes to the Kabul Airport[9]. American officials underline that these potential new routes will be protected and will exclusively be available to the evacuees[10]. However, this plan remains the last resort, as the priority is to evacuate all foreign personnel through the current lines of communications as fast as possible.

- At the moment, the airport looms large as the most crucial facility to guard. Evidence suggests that the Taliban are now stationed all around the airport, restricting access into the terminals.[11] Some news sources claim that the Taliban are no longer allowing the Afghans to access the airport[12]. The militant group also warned that they may soon shut down the airlifts.[13]


Checkpoint in Kabul, 18 August 2021, the Wall Street Journal.[14]

- Several journalists in Kabul report that the Taliban fighters are using gunfire, whips and mass violence to exert control over the crowd on the airport road, wounding dozens of people[15]. At the time of writing, several Afghan security personnel were killed by unknown attackers near the airport.[16] The U.S. forces also reportedly fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd at the tarmac.[17]

- Despite their claims of amnesty to all government personnel and the Afghan Security Forces, the Taliban are allegedly executing Afghan personnel on the streets[18]. Likewise, the violent group also intimidated Shiite Hazaras[19], raising concerns of further ethno-sectarian violence spiraling.

- By August 22nd, almost 30,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan through the joint effort of various countries[20].



Turkish and Azerbaijani Contingents Coming Home

- Along with the U.S. and British forces, the Turkish contingent operated in the airport with some 600 troops[21], in close cooperation with the Azerbaijani Armed Forces’ with some 120 forward-deployed personnel[22]. Up until August 24th, Turkey evacuated 1,061 Turkish and 343 foreign citizens, reaching a total number of 1,404[23] (As of August 26th[24], the Turkish MoD stated that 1129 Turkish citizens were evacuated from Afghanistan).

- At the time of writing, Turkey and Azerbaijan are withdrawing their military personnel from Afghanistan.

- The withdrawal decision, likely, stemmed from a careful risk calculus considering the Taliban’s dangerous stance and rhetoric as to the Turkish presence in Afghanistan. On July 13th for example, the Taliban leadership released a statement concerning the prospects of Turkey’s mission in the Afghan soil to secure the International Airport and the administrative premises. Taliban warned that this mission would lead to the deterioration of the bilateral ties between Turkey and Afghanistan. The statement also claimed that the decision of the Turkish leadership was ‘ill-advised, a violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and is against the country’s (Afghanistan) national interests’.[25] Furthermore, the Taliban stated that Turkey’s further presence would lead to a reaction where “the responsibility for all consequences shall fall on the shoulders of those who interfere in the affairs of others and make such ill-advised decisions.”[26]


Turkish and Azerbaijani soldiers in Kabul International Airport. Source: Anadolu Agency, 22 August 2021


Geostrategic Assessment and the Fast Unfolding Tactical Picture

Kabul hosts an important district of embassies and administrative facilities. The district is connected to the international airport through a few kilometers-long highway. Various important healthcare facilities such as the Military Hospital, Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan Hospital, Indira Gandhi Children Hospital, the American Medical Centre and the ICRC are also located on the opposite side of the administrative district. A terrorist attack to any of these facilities can disrupt crucial health services.

With the final departure of the Dutch Embassy staff and the closure of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, only four embassies (Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia) are still operating in their original premises.[27].On the other hand, the Taliban have encouraged other countries to keep their embassies open, pledging safety for foreign diplomats.[28] The leave of the international community raises fundamental concerns about the safety of the civilian population.

The Airport Road, Wazir Akbar Khan Road, Sulh Road, and Bibi Mahru should particularly be on the risk radar, since they connect the rest of Afghanistan with the international diplomatic missions – the airport. Following their takeover, the Taliban started setting up checkpoints along the airport routes, which makes entering the airport extremely difficult and dangerous.[29]


Airport Road & Embassies, Kabul. Source: EDAM, Satellite Imagery, 10 July 2021


What Next?

Prior to the Taliban’s takeover, the group’s officials promised that the transition would be peaceful. They also claimed that they would provide amnesty for all foreign/foreign-related personnel. However, the reality on the ground suggests the right opposite.

From a logistical and military standpoint, completing the evacuation mission within a week is almost impossible. Pentagon already confirmed that the operations will continue to evacuate as many as people as possible[30]. At the time being, the Taliban have been carefully escalating to finalize the withdrawal. Nevertheless, despite their threats, we do not see the Taliban resorting to overall military action as it stands very close to seizing the control of Afghanistan after decades.

Finally, as highlighted earlier, ISIS terror plots along the airport & critical routes remain the most dangerous wildcards of all. In fact, the recent ISIS attacks do not only target the Western and Afghan citizens but also the Taliban authority during the takeover period. Differently from al-Qaeda, which has developed symbiotic ties with the Taliban and needs Taliban rule to augment its position in Afghanistan, the ISIS jihadists would prefer seeing Afghanistan as a failed state plagued by chaos and lack of control.



[1] The Washington Post, CIA Director William Burns held secret meeting with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, 24 August 2021,

[2] The Guardian, “Afghanistan: G7 leaders to seek unity on Taliban as deadline for evacuation looms”, 24 August 2021,

[3] Reuters,, Accessed on: August 26, 2021.

[4] BBC News “Afghanistan: Taliban news conference”, 24 August 2021,

[5] US Congressional Research Service, Terrorist Groups in Afghanistan, August 17, 2021.

[6] John Kirby, Twitter, 26 August 2021,

[7] “US troops and Afghans killed in suicide attacks outside Kabul airport”, 27 August 2021, CNN,


[8], Accessed on: August 26, 2021.

[9] CNN Business, “ISIS terror threat forces U.S. military to establish alternate routes to Kabul airport”, 22 August 2021,

[10] CNN Business, “ISIS terror threat forces U.S. military to establish alternate routes to Kabul airport”, 22 August 2021,

[11] Ben Peckham, Twitter, 18 August 2021,

[12] Conflict News, Twitter, 24 August 2021,

[13] “US troops surge evacuations out of Kabul but threats persist”, APNews, 24 August 2021,

[14] “Taliban Block Routes to Kabul Airport, Hampering Evacuations From Afghanistan”, The Wall Street Journal, 18 August 2021,

[15] Marcus Yam, Twitter, 17 August 2021,

[16] Conflict News, Twitter, 22 August 2021,

[17] “Afghanistan: US takes control of Kabul airport to evacuate staff”, BBC News, 17 August 2021,

[18] Christiaan Triebert, Twitter, 18 August 2021,

[19] Sulaiman Hakemy, Twitter, 18 August 2021,

[20] “Infographic: How many people evacuated from Afghanistan so far?”, Aljazeera, 22 August 2021,

[21] “Turkey’s Contributions to the Peace Support Operation” [in Turkish], Turkish Armed Forces,

[22] “Azerbaijani peacekeepers perform assigned tasks – VIDEO”, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 17 August 2021,

[23] “Çavuşoğlu: We evacuated 1404 people from Afghanistan, 4,500 Turkish citizens are still there” [in Turkish], Independent Türkçe, 24 August 2021,

[24] BBC Turk,, Accessed on: August 26, 2021.

[25] “Statement of Islamic Emirate concerning extension of occupation by Turkish forces in Afghanistan”, 13 July 2021,

[26] “Statement of Islamic Emirate concerning extension of occupation by Turkish forces in Afghanistan”, 13 July 2021,

[27] Suhrab Sirat, Twitter, 18 August 2021,

[28] Siyar Sirat, “Taliban Pledges Safety for Diplomats, Tells Media to Continue”, TOLOnews, 17 August 2021,

[29] “Afghanistan: reports emerge of Taliban beating Afghans seeking to flee Kabul”, The Guardian, 18 August 2021,

[30] John Kirby, Twitter, 26 August 2021,