The best and worst of humanity is on parade in Afghanistan as desperate people surge to Kabul airport and the evacuation operation continues, writes Emily Barley.

When Afghan soldiers woke up at Bagram airfield in early July they found their American colleagues gone, weapons removed with them, and the power turned off. With morale at an all-time low, the Taliban used the hasty American withdrawal to their advantage, employing fear tactics and a sophisticated WhatsApp distribution network to convince supporters of the regime to surrender.

Their victory was rapid and widespread, leaving the evacuation efforts out of Kabul airport – the Americans had already withdrawn from and shut down alternative exit points – frenzied.

Reports and pictures spread of Taliban at the gates firing shots into the crowd, desperate mothers handing their babies over fences into the arms of allied soldiers, and people falling to their deaths after clinging to planes as they took off.

As the situation began to unravel in Kabul, the US sent two battalions of marines and a further army battalion to secure the airport and process applications, while the UK sent in additional paratroopers. Reports suggest commanders of the British and American troops have had 'robust conversations' over a difference in strategy. In short, the American forces are under orders to remain in Kabul airport and its immediate environs, with Americans and people on American evacuation lists asked to make their own way to the gates.

Meanwhile, the SAS and 2 and 3 Para have been seen on the streets of Kabul executing extractions – including that of a Washington Post journalist and her team. Reports suggest British special forces have used their initiative to ensure safe passage for evacuees, including negotiating with the Taliban on the ground where necessary.

Getting to the airport and then into it has emerged as the most difficult part of the operation, with Norwegian and German planes leaving Kabul almost empty, one Dutch plane leaving without any passengers, and ongoing difficulties processing applications for visas on the ground amidst the chaos.

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The US has partnered with ally Qatar to help ease this problem, with an additional 1,000 military personnel deployed to Qatar to assist with visas for Afghan interpreters who have previously helped American forces. Qatar has stepped up as a staging post for people fleeing Kabul and hoping to go on to the US and Europe, accommodating thousands of refugees at military bases and in Doha itself, including Afghanistan's all-girls award-winning robotics team. And more than just a handy partner in the region to host soldiers and refugees, Qatari forces have their boots on the ground in Kabul and are running evacuation flights.

This bottleneck outside the airport has caused controversy here in the UK too, as former commando Pen Farthing raised money for a plane to extract himself, his team, and the 100 cats and dogs his charity supports. The plane had been denied permission to land in Kabul as Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace insisted that the UK would 'prioritise people over pets' in the queue to get into the airport – before being overruled by Boris Johnson.

And on Thursday, the chaos and crowds outside Kabul airport were targeted as two explosions, now known to have been terrorist attacks, resulted in fatalities and injuries to civilians and military personnel, reportedly including children and Americans. This attack followed warnings that an attack by IS-K was likely.

Around the world, thousands of individuals have stepped up to help former colleagues and contacts that have assisted the allied forces over the last two decades as they hideout in Kabul and wait for confirmation that they are eligible to be evacuated. In the US and UK private individuals are desperately making calls and sending emails to secure safe passage for their friends, revealing the disorganised, last-minute nature of the withdrawal.

As the August 31st deadline the US negotiated with the Taliban looms, evacuation efforts have accelerated and 21,600 people were flown out of Kabul on Monday. This week, Boris Johnson hit the phones to personally plead with President Biden to reconsider his decision to withdraw on the 31st, urging him to allow American troops to remain and continue the evacuation until everyone who is eligible to leave is out of Afghanistan.

Johnson's appeals – in which he was joined by Germany, France and Italy – were rejected by Biden, potentially spelling the end of the 'special relationship' with a decision which will now almost inevitably mean thousands of Afghans who aided British and American forces will be left behind to face the Taliban alone.

In a few days Kabul airport will go quiet and Western involvement in Afghanistan will abruptly end after two decades on the ground. But for those who remain trapped in Afghanistan, promised safety and then betrayed, their names on lists and their houses marked, the battle for survival will be just beginning.

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