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Merkel party chief calls Afghanistan pullout 'biggest NATO debacle' since its founding

Soldiers of the German armed forces stand out of an Airbus A400M cargo of the German armed forces Bundeswehr on the tarmac at the military air base in Wunstorf, northern Germany, on June 30, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

The head of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party has called the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan the "biggest NATO debacle" since the founding of the US-led military alliance.

“With the Taliban sweeping to power after NATO troops withdrew, it is evident that this engagement of the international community was not successful,” Armin Laschet said at a closed-door meeting of Germany’s Christian Democrat party on Monday.

“It is the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding, and we're standing before an epochal change."

Merkel, for her part, told party colleagues that Germany must urgently evacuate up to 10,000 people from Afghanistan for whom it has responsibility, warning that the fallout from the conflict will last for a very long time.

Merkel stressed that those needing evacuation included 2,500 Afghan support staff as well as human rights activists, lawyers and others whom the government sees as being at risk if they remained in the country. Up to 10,000 people altogether are in need of evacuation, she said.

"We are witnessing difficult times," the German chancellor added. "Now we must focus on the rescue mission."

She also said Berlin should cooperate with countries bordering Afghanistan to support those fleeing the war-torn country, adding, "This topic will keep us busy for a very long time."

Earlier in the day, a spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry said at a regular government news conference that no evacuation flights are leaving Kabul airport at the moment because desperate people trying to flee the country are blocking the tarmac.

The spokesman said 40 staff from the German embassy were flown to Doha overnight, and that fewer than 10 staff would remain at Kabul airport to coordinate evacuations.

The remarks were made less than 24 hours after the Taliban laid siege to Kabul, forcing the sitting Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, to flee to an undisclosed location.

Ghani, whose current whereabouts are unknown, left Afghanistan when the Taliban entered Kabul virtually unopposed, and said he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

The unfolding events have led to chaos and confusion, with thousands of Afghan civilians and diplomats swarming Kabul airport to take evacuation flights.

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan removed the Taliban from power 20 years ago, but it worsened the security situation in the country.

The militants intensified their offensive and rapidly overran major cities after US President Joe Biden ordered a hasty withdrawal of American forces by September 1.

Taliban does not pose threat to Central Asia: Russia

Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative on Afghanistan, was quoted as saying by TASS news agency on Monday that Moscow does not view the Taliban as a threat to the Central Asia region.

Kabulov also said Moscow had prepared the ground in advance to establish contact with the Taliban.

The Russian diplomat's comment came after the Russia-led CSTO security bloc said in a statement that it was deeply concerned by the Taliban taking control in Afghanistan and thinks it has a significant impact on the situation in Central Asia.

The CSTO said the bloc will provide all help to its member Tajikistan in the event of a security threat from neighboring Afghanistan, but it sees no need for such help at the moment.

The statement added that the bloc plans drills on the Afghan-Tajik border in the coming months.

Ashraf Ghani fled with cars and helicopter full of cash: RIA

Meanwhile, Russia's embassy in Kabul was reported by the RIA news agency as saying on Monday that the Afghan president had fled the country with four cars and a helicopter full of cash and had to leave some money behind as it would not all fit in.

"As for the collapse of the (outgoing) regime, it is most eloquently characterized by the way Ghani fled Afghanistan," Nikita Ishchenko, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Kabul, was quoted as saying by RIA.

"Four cars were full of money, they tried to stuff another part of the money into a helicopter, but not all of it fit. And some of the money was left lying on the tarmac," he was quoted as saying.

Ishchenko cited "witnesses" as the source of his information.

Kabulov, Russia’s special representative on Afghanistan, had earlier said it was unclear how much money the fleeing government would leave behind.

"I hope the government that has fled did not take all the money from the state budget. It will be the bedrock of the budget if something is left," Kabulov told Moscow's Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Afghan military jet shot down by Uzbek air defenses

In another development on Monday, Uzbekistan’s Defense Ministry said an Afghan military plane had been shot down by the Uzbek air defense forces and crashed after crossing the border into the Central Asian country.

“Uzbekistan's air defense forces prevented an attempt by an Afghan military aircraft to illegally cross Uzbekistan's border,” defense ministry spokesman Bahrom Zulfikorov said, adding that the jet crashed late on Sunday in Uzbekistan's southernmost province of Surkhondaryo adjacent to Afghanistan.

He did not say how many people were on board or whether they have survived the crash.

Russia's RIA news agency earlier on Monday cited Uzbekistan's Defense Ministry as saying the pilot had ejected and was injured.

Bekpulat Okboyev, a doctor in Surkhondaryo, told AFP that his hospital had taken in two patients who were wearing Afghan military uniforms on Sunday evening.

The doctor described one of the patients as having come in "with a parachute" and noted that the man had suffered fractures.

The Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — bordering Afghanistan — have been a major destination for those Afghan troops and civilians fleeing the war-torn country since the Taliban militant group ramped up its offensives last month.

On Sunday, Uzbekistan said 84 Afghan soldiers had been detained crossing the border, adding that it was negotiating with the Afghans over the soldiers' return.

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