Lithuania vs. China: A Baltic Minnow Defies a Rising Superpower

VILNIUS, Lithuania — It was never a secret that China tightly controls what its people can read and write on their cellphones. But it came as a shock to officials in Lithuania when they discovered that a popular Chinese-made handset sold in the Baltic nation had a hidden though dormant feature: a censorship registry of 449 terms banned by the Chinese Communist Party.

Lithuania’s government swiftly advised officials using the phones to dump them, enraging China — and not for the first time. Lithuania has also embraced Taiwan, a vibrant democracy that Beijing regards as a renegade province, and pulled out of a Chinese-led regional forum that it scorned as divisive for the European Union.

Furious, Beijing has recalled its ambassador, halted trips by a Chinese cargo train into the country and made it nearly impossible for many Lithuanian exporters to sell their goods in China. Chinese state media has assailed Lithuania, mocked its diminutive size and accused it of being the “anti-China vanguard” in Europe.

In the battlefield of geopolitics, Lithuania versus China is hardly a fair fight — a tiny Baltic nation with fewer than 3 million people against a rising superpower with 1.4 billion. Lithuania’s military has no tanks or fighter jets, and its economy is 270 times smaller than China’s.

met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who pledged “ironclad U.S. support for Lithuania in the face of attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China.”

European Council on Foreign Relations indicate that most Europeans don’t want a new Cold War between the United States and China. But they also show growing wariness of China.

“There is a general shift in mood,” said Frank Juris, a researcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute who tracks Chinese activities in Europe. “Promises have not materialized and countries are tired of being constantly threatened with the whip.”

That whip is now being brought down hard on Lithuania, a member of the European Union and also NATO.

Particularly galling for Beijing was Lithuania’s announcement in July that it had accepted a request by Taiwan to open a “Taiwanese representative office” in Vilnius.

by Lithuania’s Defense Ministry Cyber Security Center was yet another provocation. The hidden registry found by the center allows for the detection and censorship of phrases like “student movement,” “Taiwan independence,” and “dictatorship.”

The blacklist, which updates automatically to reflect the Communist Party’s evolving concerns, lies dormant in phones exported to Europe but, according to the cyber center, the disabled censorship tool can be activated with the flick of a switch in China.

The registry “is shocking and very concerning,” said Margiris Abukevicius, a deputy defense minister responsible for cybersecurity.

The maker of the Chinese phones in question, Xiaomi, says its devices “do not censor communications.”

In addition to telling government offices to dump the phones, Mr. Abukevicius said in an interview that ordinary users should decide “their own appetite for risk.”

The Global Times, a nationalist news outlet controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, derided the Lithuanian report as a “new trick” by a small “pawn” in Washington’s anti-China agenda.

China has steadily ramped up pressure on Lithuania, last month recalling its ambassador from Vilnius and urging Lithuania’s envoy in Beijing to go home, which she did. It halted a regular cargo train to Lithuania, though it still lets other trains transit through the Baltic country filled with Chinese goods destined for Germany.

While not announcing any formal sanctions, China has added red tape to block Lithuanian exporters from selling goods in China.

Lithuania’s economy minister, Ausrine Armonaite, downplayed the damage, noting Lithuania’s exports to China accounted for only 1 percent of total exports. Losing that, she said, “is not too harmful.”

A bigger blow, according to business leaders, has been the disruption in the supply of Chinese-made glass, electronic components and other items needed by Lithuanian manufacturers. Around a dozen companies that rely on goods from China last week received nearly identical letters from Chinese suppliers claiming that power cuts had made it difficult fulfill orders.

“They are very creative,” said Vidmantas Janulevicius, the president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, noting that the delays were “targeted very precisely.”

Lithuania has made “a clear geopolitical decision” to side decisively with the United States, a longtime ally, and other democracies, said Laurynas Kasciunas, the chairman of the national security and defense committee. “Everyone here agrees on this. We are all very anti-communist Chinese. It is in our DNA.”

Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Monika Pronczuk in Brussels, and Claire Fu contributed reporting

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German Elections Live Updates: Social Democrats Have Narrowly Beaten Merkel’s Party

preliminary official results reported early Monday.

The federal German election agency posted the results at 4:30 a.m. local time.

The close outcome means the Social Democrats, with only 25.7 percent of the vote, must team up with other parties to form a government. And in the complex equation that can be required in Germany to form a government, it is possible that if the winning party fails to get others on board, the party that placed second could wind up leading the country.

It could take weeks if not months of haggling to form a coalition, leaving Europe’s biggest democracy suspended in a kind of limbo at a critical moment when the continent is still struggling to recover from the pandemic and France — Germany’s partner at the core of Europe — faces divisive elections of its own next spring.

Sunday’s election signaled the end of an era for Germany and for Europe. For over a decade, Ms. Merkel was not just chancellor of Germany but effectively the leader of Europe. She steered her country and the continent through successive crises and in the process helped Germany become Europe’s leading power for the first time since World War II.

Cheers erupted at the Social Democratic Party’s headquarters when the exit polls were announced early Sunday evening. A short while later, supporters clapped and chanted “Olaf! Olaf!” as Olaf Scholz, their candidate, took the stage to address the crowd.

“People checked the box for the S.P.D. because they want there to be a change of government in this country and because they want the next chancellor to be called Olaf Scholz,” he said.

The campaign proved to be the most volatile in decades. Armin Laschet, the candidate of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, was long seen as the front-runner until a series of blunders compounded by his own unpopularity eroded his party’s lead. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic candidate, was counted out altogether before his steady persona led his party to a spectacular 10-point comeback. And the Greens, who briefly led the polls early on, fell short of expectations but recorded their best result ever.

The Christian Democrats’ share of the vote collapsed with only 24.1 percent of the vote, heading toward the worst showing in their history. For the first time, three parties will be needed to form a coalition — and both main parties are planning to hold competing talks to do so.

Nevertheless, Mr. Laschet appeared at his party headquarters an hour after the polls closed, declaring the outcome “unclear” and vowing to try to form a government even if his party came in second.

Credit…Pool photo by Clemens Bilan

The progressive, environmentalist Greens appeared to make significant gains since the 2017 election but seemed to fall short of having a viable shot at the chancellery. That positions the Greens, as well as the business-friendly Free Democrats, to join the next government. They will play a key role in deciding what the next German government could look like, depending on which of the larger parties they would like to govern with.

On the outer edge of the political spectrum, support for the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, appeared roughly unchanged, while the Left party appeared to be hovering on the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in Parliament.

In mid-October the election agency will present the official final results.

Credit…Michele Tantussi/Reuters

BERLIN — What do a traffic light, the Jamaican flag and a kiwi have in common?

Those watching German politics closely will know all three are nicknames for potential governing coalitions.

In the weeks following the election, the parties will try to form a coalition government that has a majority in the German Parliament. The winning party in the election will have the first chance to try to form that coalition, but if it doesn’t succeed the chance goes to the runner up.

For the first time since the founding of the federal republic 72 years ago, it looks as though it will take at least three parties to form a stable government.

Here’s how things might play out:

Traffic Light Coalition 🚦: This could be the most likely combination. Its name derives from the parties that would be included, the Social Democrats (red), the free market liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens (uh, green).

Jamaica Coalition 🇯🇲: If Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (black) should take the lead, Germany might be looking at a Jamaica coalition — named after the black, green and yellow of the Jamaican flag. That bloc would consist of the conservatives, the Greens and the Free Democrats.

And the kiwi 🥝? That would be a duo of the conservatives and the Greens, who have worked together in several state governments, but on current polling are unlikely to command a national majority.

Given the relatively low polling of the once-mighty Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, the topic of possible coalitions has dominated news coverage for weeks in Germany. For the past five years, the two big parties have governed Germany together in a “Grand Coalition,” but they don’t want to repeat that and it might not have a majority in any case.

The Social Democrats and the Greens have governed Germany together before — a prosaically named “Red-Green coalition” was in power from 1997 until 2005 — and have signaled their willingness to work together again. But this time they are not expected to win the seats necessary to get a majority on their own.

Seeing their popularity slip, Merkel’s conservatives and much of the conservative media have warned that an ascendant Social Democrats would turn to the far-left party, Die Linke, to round out their numbers.

Credit…Pool photo by Tobias Schwarz

They call it the “Elephant Round”: After the polls close and as the votes are being counted on Sunday, all of the heavy-hitting party leaders sit down together, live on public television, to discuss the outcome that is shaping up.

Those who are winning will exclaim, those who are losing will explain and smaller parties will jockey for position in a new government, cozying up to potential partners or coolly shunning others.

For Germans watching at home, the event, which is scheduled to start at 8:15, is a chance to read the tea leaves about their future government.

For the politicians sitting in the brightly lit studio, the round offers them a chance to try to set the tone for the weeks of negotiations that are expected to follow, given that none of the parties running are expected to win enough votes to allow them to govern alone. Leaders of the smaller parties use the opportunity to make their first demands and draw their lines in the sand.

It is a chance for grandstanding and, occasionally, for grinning. That happened famously in 2005, when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats lost by a small margin to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. He nevertheless tried to claim victory, on grounds that his party had done much better than predicted in the polls. “We’ve won,” Ms. Merkel replied with a controlled smile. “And after a couple of days of reflection, the Social Democrats will realize that, too.”

This year, fate may be in the favor of the Social Democrats. Ms. Merkel is stepping aside after 16 years in power and Olaf Scholz, her vice chancellor and finance minister, led the polls in the final weeks of the race. His campaign portrayed him as coolheaded and in control. Come Sunday night, Germans will be watching to see whether he can keep that up when faced with the “elephants.”

In Germany, political parties name their candidates for chancellor before campaigning begins, and most of the focus falls on the selections who have a realistic chance of winning.

Traditionally, those have been the candidates of the center-right Christian Democrats (Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party) and those of the center-left Social Democrats. For the first time this year, the candidate for the environmentalist Greens is viewed as having a real shot at the chancellery.

Here are the leading hopefuls:

Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Age: 40

Current position: Co-leader of the Green Party

About her: Ms. Baerbock aims to shake up the status quo. She is challenging Germans to deal with the crises that Ms. Merkel has left largely unattended: decarbonizing the powerful automobile sector; weaning the country off coal; and rethinking trade relationships with strategic competitors like China and Russia.

“This election is not just about what happens in the next four years, it’s about our future,” Ms. Baerbock told a crowd in Bochum, a western German town, this summer.

Ms. Baerbock, who has not a position in government, has started off on a promising note, but her campaign has struggled as she has been a frequent target of disinformation efforts. She has also been accused by rivals of plagiarism and of padding her résumé, and her Green Party has been faulted for not being able to capitalize on environmental issues in the wake of flooding this summer.

Even so, there is almost no combination of parties imaginable in the next coalition government that does not include the Greens. That makes Ms. Baerbock, her ideas and her party of central importance to Germany’s future.

“We need change to preserve what we love and cherish,” she told the crowd in Bochum. “Change requires courage, and change is on the ballot on Sept. 26.”

Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Age: 60

Current position: Leader of the Christian Democratic Union; governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia

About him: Mr. Laschet has run North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, since 2017 — a credential he has long said qualifies him to run the country. As the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Ms. Merkel’s party, he should have been the natural heir to the chancellor. But his gaffe-prone campaign has struggled to find traction among Germans. Extraordinary flooding this summer in the region he runs exposed flaws in his environmental policies and disaster management. He was caught on camera laughing during a solemn ceremony for flood victims.

But Mr. Laschet is known for comebacks, and for surviving blunders.

Among his influences is his faith. At a time when more and more Germans are quitting the Roman Catholic Church, Mr. Laschet is a proud member. Another influence is Aachen, Germany’s westernmost city, where he was born and raised. Growing up in a place with deep ties to Belgium and the Netherlands, Mr. Laschet has been integrated into the larger European ideal all of his life.

Credit…Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Age: 63

Current position: Vice chancellor of Germany and federal finance minister

About him: When Olaf Scholz asked his fellow Social Democrats to nominate him as their candidate for chancellor, some inside his own camp publicly wondered if the party should bother fielding a candidate at all. What a difference a few months make. Today, Mr. Scholz and his once moribund party have unexpectedly become the favorites to lead the next government.

During the campaign, Mr. Scholz has managed to turn what has long been the main liability for his party — co-governing as junior partners of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives — into his main asset: In an election with no incumbent, he has styled himself as the incumbent — or as the closest thing there is to Ms. Merkel.

“Germans aren’t a very change-friendly people, and the departure of Angela Merkel is basically enough change for them,” said Christiane Hoffmann, a prominent political observer and journalist. “They’re most likely to trust the candidate who promises that the transition is as easy as possible.”

He has been photographed making the chancellor’s hallmark diamond-shaped hand gesture — the “Merkel rhombus” — and used the female form of the German word for chancellor on a campaign poster to convince Germans that he could continue Ms. Merkel’s work even though he is a man.

The symbolism isn’t subtle, but it is working — so well in fact that the chancellor herself has felt compelled to push back on it — most recently in what might be her last speech in the Bundestag.

Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

It has been said that Germans are sometimes so organized that chaos reigns. Germany’s election system is no exception. It is so complex that even many Germans don’t understand it.

Here’s a brief primer.

Not exactly. Unlike in the United States, voters don’t directly elect their head of government. Rather, they vote for representatives in Parliament, who will choose the next chancellor, but only after forming a government. More on that later.

The major parties declare who they would choose for chancellor, so Germans going to the polls today know who they are in effect voting for. This year the candidates most likely to become chancellor are Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats or Armin Laschet of the Christian Democrats. Annalena Baerbock, a Green, has an outside chance.

Any German citizen 18 or over. They don’t need to register beforehand.

Everyone going to the polls today has two votes. The first vote is for a candidate to be the district’s local representative. The second vote is for a party. Voters can split their votes among parties and often do. For example, a person could cast one vote for a Social Democrat as the local member of Parliament, and a second vote for the Christian Democrats as a party.

Parliament has 598 members, but could wind up with many more because of a quirk in the system. The top vote-getter in every district automatically gets a seat in Parliament. These candidates account for half of the members of Parliament. The remaining seats are allocated according to how many second votes each party receives.

But parties may be allocated additional seats according to a formula designed to ensure that every faction in Parliament has a delegation that accurately reflects its national support. So Parliament could easily wind up with 700 members.

Also: A party that polls less than 5 percent doesn’t get any seats at all.

It is very unlikely that any party will wind up with a majority in Parliament. The party that gets the most votes must then try to form a government by agreeing to a coalition with other parties. That has become mathematically more difficult because of the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party and the far-left Linke party.

The mainstream parties have ruled out coalitions with either of those parties because of their extreme positions. But it will be a struggle for the remaining parties to find enough common ground to cobble together a majority. The process could take months.

Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times

Voter turnout in Germany — as a measure of the people visiting polling stations — was down on Sunday when compared to the last election in 2017, officials said. But the number is misleading. Participation could be extraordinarily high once mail-in ballots are counted.

By 2 p.m., 37 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots in person, election officials said, down from 41 percent during the same period in 2017. But at least 40 percent of Germans were expected to vote by mail because of the coronavirus, potentially pushing turnout above the 76 percent recorded in 2017.

Despite the decrease in in-person voting nationwide, there were long lines at polling stations in Berlin, where voters were also choosing candidates for the local government. Some polling places reportedly ran out of ballots and had trouble getting more because many streets were closed because of the Berlin Marathon, which was expected to attract almost 30,000 participants.

With Chancellor Angela Merkel poised to step down after 16 years in office, the stakes are high. Polls showed a close race between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democratic Union, Ms. Merkel’s party, which could encourage turnout. Voting sites remain open until 6 p.m. local time.

The high number of mail-in ballots is not expected to delay the results in the same way that occurred in the United States presidential elections last year, when close races in some states were not decided for days. German officials will only count mail-in ballots that had arrived by Sunday, and should have a good idea by midnight at the latest of which party prevailed.

Credit…Pool photo by Martin Divisek

The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which shocked the nation four years ago by becoming the first far-right party to win seats in Parliament since World War II, suffered a slippage in support Sunday but also solidified its status as a permanent force to be reckoned with.

“We are here to stay, and we showed that today,” Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the party, told party members gathered on the outskirts of Berlin.

Early results showed the party with 11 percent of the votes, down from almost 13 percent in 2017. The AfD is likely to no longer be the largest opposition party in Parliament.

If those results hold in final tallies, that will still give the AfD a sizable delegation in Parliament, and the vote showed that the party has a core constituency even when immigration, its main issue, was not a major topic in the campaign.

At the AfD’s post-election gathering Sunday, activists took comfort in the poor showing by the Christian Democrats, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who compete with the AfD for conservative voters. “The C.D.U. got what they deserved,” said Alexander Gauland, the leader of the AfD delegation in Parliament.

Alternative for Germany held its election party at an event space 45 minutes by subway from central Berlin, perhaps in an effort to discourage counter-demonstrators. Several dozen protesters gathered across the street from the AfD event, holding signs accusing the party of being fascist. But they were probably outnumbered by the police.

As AfD activists ate potato salad and wurst from a buffet, the prevailing view seemed to be that the party’s candidates would have done better if the media and the other parties hadn’t ganged up on them.

“We had to campaign against everyone,” said Daniela Öeynhausen, who appears to have won a seat in the state Parliament of Brandenburg. “It was still an impressive two-digit result considering the unfair attacks.”

Julian Potthast, who said he believed he had won election to a district council in a neighborhood of Berlin, portrayed the party — whose rhetoric has been linked to attacks on immigrants or people perceived as non-Germans — as itself the victim of violence. He said that his vehicle was vandalized and that graffiti was sprayed on his home.

The party was unfairly portrayed as fascist, he complained. But he also conceded the party might have made mistakes, for example in its stance against restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus. “It’s not as good as we hoped,” Mr. Potthast said. “We have to look very carefully at why we lost votes.”

Credit…Thomas Kienzle/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Chancellor Angela Merkel will not disappear Sunday night after the votes are counted.

Until a new government is formed, a process that can take several weeks to several months, she will remain in office as head of the acting, or caretaker, government.

Ms. Merkel announced in the fall of 2018 that she would not run again and she gave up leadership of her party, the Christian Democratic Union. After that, her position as chancellor was weakened as members of the C.D.U. jockeyed to replace her. She had hoped to stay out of the election campaign, but as the conservative candidate, Armin Laschet, started to flounder, she made several appearances aimed at bolstering support for him.

Ms. Merkel is expected to try to take a similarly hands-off approach to steering the caretaker government — if world events allow. The last two years of her fourth and final term in office has seen the deadly coronavirus pandemic, what she herself has called “apocalyptic” flooding in western Germany and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Once the new chancellor is sworn in, Ms. Merkel will vacate her office in the imposing concrete building that dominates Berlin’s government district for good.

But, after the last election, in 2017, it took 171 days — or nearly six months — to form a new government, which means she is likely to be around for a while.

What she will do next remains to be seen. In response to that question in repeated interviews, she has said that first and foremost she will take some time off to reflect and reorient herself before making her next move.

“I will take a break and I will think about what really interests me, because in the past 16 years, I haven’t had the time to do that,” she said in July, after receiving an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.

“Then I will maybe read a bit, and then my eyes might close because I am tired and I will sleep a bit,” she said, with a smile: “And then we’ll see where I emerge.”

Credit…Sebastian Kahnert/picture alliance, via Getty Images

BERLIN — German election officials are expecting mail-in ballots to break records in Sunday’s federal election. At least 40 percent and possibly a majority of ballots will arrive by mail, according to Georg Thiel, head of the agency in charge of counting the votes.

Although actual tallies will only be known after polls close, the authorities have seen requests for mail-in ballots grow this year as the pandemic fuels anxiety about crowded polling stations.

Mail-in balloting has been permitted in Germany for more than 60 years. When it was first allowed, in the 1957 election, only 5 percent of voters used the option; during the last federal election in 2017, 29 percent chose to mail in their choice. Vote counters are set up to handle a doubling of that number — nearly 60 percent — this year, Mr. Thiel said.

The postal service in Germany is one of the quickest and most reliable in the world, with letters usually delivered within a day to anywhere in the country. Still, an official warned voters last week that if they wanted their ballot to be counted, it should be in the mail by Thursday; only ballots received by 6 p.m. on Sunday — when polls close — will be tallied.

The populist Alternative for Germany party, segments of which have parroted former President Donald J. Trump’s claims of manipulated mail-in ballots in the U.S., has used slogans like “the mailbox is not a ballot box” to try to dissuade voters from using the option. But those concerns do not appear to have resonated with the electorate.

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The new Parliament will ultimately determine who succeeds Angela Merkel, who has served as chancellor for 16 years. Early exit polling has suggested a tight race between the Christian Democratic Union, Ms. Merkel’s center-right party, and the center-left Social Democrats.CreditCredit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times

Sixty million people are eligible to vote in the German national election on Sunday. There won’t be a new government that night, or the next day — it could take the rival parties weeks or even months to settle on a coalition with a parliamentary majority. But the ballots are tallied quickly, and the new shape of Germany’s political landscape is likely to be visible within hours.

Here’s what Election Day will look like, and what to watch for.

8 a.m. local time: Polls opened. Candidates are not allowed to campaign on this day, but some may be seen casting ballots.

6 p.m. (noon Eastern): Polling stations close. Not long after, the first exit polls should be available. These polls can be within percentage points of the final result. But this year, because the race is tight, it could be a few more hours before a clear picture emerges. Mail-in ballots, which have been part of Germany’s voting system since 1957, are expected to play an outsized role given the pandemic, as they did in the U.S. presidential election. Only mail-in ballots received by 6 p.m. Sunday will be counted.

Around 6:15 p.m.: The first projections based on actual counted ballots will be released. These get updated throughout the evening until a fairly clear picture emerges of which party is winning.

8:15 p.m.: The heads of all the major parties meet to discuss successes and failures of their campaigns, and they will signal who they would be willing to work with in a coalition government. This discussion is called the “Elephant Round,” and it lasts an hour.

8 p.m. to midnight: Nearly all votes should be counted.

Early, early morning: The election authorities release something they call the official temporary results. These usually come between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. — though during the last national election, they didn’t arrive until 5:30 a.m.

Credit…Bernd von Jutrczenka/Picture Alliance, via Getty Images

During her 16 years as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel has become an international avatar of calm, reason and democratic values for the way she handled crises that included a near financial meltdown of the eurozone, the arrival of more than a million migrants and a pandemic.

Today Germany is an economic colossus, the engine of Europe, enjoying prosperity and near full employment despite the pandemic. But can it last?

That is the question looming as Ms. Merkel prepares to leave the political stage after national elections on Sunday. There are signs that Germany is economically vulnerable, losing competitiveness and unprepared for a future shaped by technology and the rivalry between the United States and China.

During her tenure, economists say, Germany neglected to build world-class digital infrastructure, bungled a hasty exit from nuclear power, and became alarmingly dependent on China as a market for its autos and other exports.

The China question is especially complex. Germany’s strong growth during Ms. Merkel’s tenure was largely a result of trade with China, which she helped promote. But, increasingly, China is becoming a competitor in areas like industrial machinery and electric vehicles.

Economists say that Germany has not invested enough in education and in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and electric vehicles. Germans pay some of the highest energy prices in the world because Ms. Merkel pushed to close nuclear power plants, without expanding the country’s network of renewable energy sources enough to cover the deficit.

“That is going to come back to haunt Germany in the next 10 years,” said Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a research institute in Brussels.

Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times

WÜLFRATH, Germany — Hibaja Maai gave birth three days after arriving in Germany.

She had fled the bombs that destroyed her home in Syria and crossed the black waters of the Mediterranean on a rickety boat with her three young children. In Greece, a doctor urged her to stay put, but she pressed on, through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. Only after she had crossed the border into Bavaria did she relax and almost immediately go into labor.

“It’s a girl,” the doctor said when he handed her the newborn bundle.

There was no question in Ms. Maai’s mind what her daughter’s name would be.

“We are calling her Angela,” she told her husband, who had fled six months earlier and was reunited with his family two days before little Angela’s birth on Feb. 1, 2016.

“Angela Merkel saved our lives,” Ms. Maai said in a recent interview in her new hometown, Wülfrath, in northwestern Germany. “She gave us a roof over our heads, and she gave a future to our children. We love her like a mother.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel is stepping down after her replacement is chosen following Germany’s Sept. 26 election. Her decision to welcome more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2015 and 2016 stands as perhaps the most consequential moment of her 16 years in power.

It changed Europe, changed Germany, and above all changed the lives of those seeking refuge, a debt acknowledged by families who named their newborn children after her in gratitude.

The chancellor has no children of her own. But in different corners of Germany, there are now 5- and 6-year-old girls (and some boys) who carry variations of her name — Angela, Angie, Merkel and even Angela Merkel. How many is impossible to say. The New York Times has identified nine, but social workers suggest there could be far more, each of them now calling Germany home.

Credit…Clemens Bilan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Never before has the issue of climate change played such a role in a German election.

Though it still remained unclear who will lead Germany, nearly every party pledged to put climate change near the top of the agenda for the next government.

Despite entering office in 2005 with ambitions to reduce carbon emissions, four successive governments under Chancellor Angela Merkel failed to significantly reduce Germany’s carbon footprint. It remains in the top 10 of the world’s most polluting countries, according to the World Bank.

It has been young climate activists who have succeeded in bringing the climate debate to the forefront of Germany’s political discussion. This year, they successfully took the government to court, forcing a 2019 law aimed at bringing the country’s carbon emissions down to nearly zero by 2050 to be reworked with more ambitious and detailed goals to reduce emissions through 2030.

On Friday, people of all ages marched through the center of Berlin, then rallied on the lawn before the Reichstag, where Germany’s Parliament meets. Thousands turned out for similar protests in other cities across the country.

They were joined by Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old climate activist who started the Fridays for Future protests in Stockholm in 2018 by skipping school as a way of shaming the world into addressing climate change, made a guest appearance at a protest in Berlin. Future Fridays were a staple in Germany until the pandemic hit.

“Yes, we must vote and you must vote, but remember that voting will not be enough,” she told the crowd, urging them to stay motivated and keep up the pressure on politicians.

“We can still turn this around. People are ready for change,” she said. “We demand the change and we are the change.”

Credit…Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

BERLIN — In the prelude to Sunday’s federal election, one of the strangest questions faced by Armin Laschet, governor of Germany’s most populous state and one of the front-runners, was what his dragon name would be.

Mr. Laschet, apparently nonplused, exhaled loudly. “No idea,” he answered. “What kind of names do dragons have?”

As the vote neared and the competition to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel increasingly turned on the candidates’ characters, the contenders submitted themselves to an exhaustive schedule of interviews, debates and town hall-style discussions — including some inquiries from children. In fact, many of the most memorable moments were prompted by the younger questioners.

On one program, “Can You Do the Chancellery,” each of the main candidates was given 30 minutes to teach a classroom of 8- to 13-year-olds. During their separate sessions leading the class, candidates answered questions and had to explain complex themes (like global taxation or global warming) on a whiteboard.

Pauline and Romeo, the children who asked Mr. Laschet about dragons, were part of a segment on a late-night talk show. The two, both 11, threw Mr. Laschet no softballs. Among other things, they asked if he was planning on quitting smoking (a question he dodged, though he did offer that he did not inhale) and about a far-right candidate in his party.

When the 10-minute segment aired this month, Mr. Laschet was widely panned for his performance. (Two other candidates, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, survived Pauline and Romeo without making any headlines.)

But Mr. Laschet was not the only one to struggle. Tino Chrupalla, co-chairman of the populist Alternative for Germany party, also had a tough time with a younger interrogator.

In a publicly broadcast interview, Mr. Chrupalla told a teenage reporter called Alexander that his party wanted to see more German poems and songs being taught in classrooms. But when Alexander asked him what his favorite German poem was, Mr. Chrupalla struggled to name one.

Credit…Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Unusually long lines at polling stations on Sunday caused several Berlin voting locations to remain open for hours after the 6 p.m. closing deadline. That extension may add hours to the time it will take Germany to tally the votes.

The culprit seems to have been a combination of higher-than-expected in-person voting, missing or wrong ballots, and a road-blocking marathon that delayed restocking supplies.

Paco Mallia, 18, who looked forward to voting for the first time, turned back when he saw the long line at his polling station in the central neighborhood of Moabit on Sunday morning.

When he returned just before closing time, the line remained long, but an election worker assured Mr. Mallia that he would get to vote.

At other polling stations in the city, handwritten notes informed voters that as long as they stood in line by 6 p.m. they could cast a ballot.

Mr. Mallia decided to stay. “This election is kind of a big deal for me,” he said.

Although delays were reported in other jurisdictions, Berlin — where residents also voted in state and local elections — seems to have been hardest hit.

Dirk Behrendt, a Green Party city official, demanded an investigation into the delays.

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North Korea Fires 2 Ballistic Missiles as Arms Rivalry Mounts

SEOUL — North Korea launched two ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, the country’s first ballistic missile test in six months and a violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from conducting such tests.

Hours after the missiles were launched, South Korea announced that its president, Moon Jae-in, had just attended the test of the country’s first submarine-launched ballistic missile, making South Korea ​the seventh country in the world to operate S.L.B.M.s, after the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and India.

​The missile tests by both Koreas on the same day dramatically highlighted the intensifying arms race on the Korean Peninsula as nuclear disarmament talks between Washington and North Korea remained stalled. They also underscored the growing concern over regional stability, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan calling the North Korean missile launch “outrageous” and a threat to peace.

In its announcement, South Korea revealed that it had successfully developed a supersonic cruise missile and a long-range air-to-land missile to be mounted on the KF-21, a South Korean supersonic fighter jet, and that it had developed a ballistic missile powerful enough to penetrate North Korea’s underground wartime bunkers.

test-fired what it called newly developed long-range cruise missiles over the weekend. But the United States has not imposed fresh sanctions against the North for weapons tests in recent years. When North Korea resumed testing short-range ballistic missiles in 2019, Donald J. Trump, then the president, dismissed them for being short range.

The Biden administration has said it would explore “practical” and “calibrated” diplomacy to achieve the goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But North Korea has yet to respond to the administration’s invitation to dialogue.

“Rather than strengthen sanctions and military exercises, the allies have emphasized a willingness for dialogue and humanitarian cooperation,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The problem with less than robust responses to North Korea’s tests is that deterrence can be eroded while Pyongyang advances its capabilities and normalizes its provocations.”

The North Korean missiles on Wednesday — launched from Yangdok, in the central part of the country — flew 497 miles and reached an altitude of 37 miles before landing in the sea between North Korea and Japan, the South Korean military said. South Korean and United States defense officials were analyzing the data collected from the test to determine exactly what type of ballistic missiles were used, it said.

Japan’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that it “assumed” the missile did not reach the country’s territorial waters or its exclusive economic zone.

The news of the North Korean missile test broke shortly after Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China, North Korea’s biggest supporter and only remaining major trading partner, finished a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, in Seoul.

“It’s not just North Korea, but other countries as well that engage in military activities,” Mr. Wang said when asked by reporters to comment on the North’s weekend cruise-missile test. “We must all work together to resume dialogue. We all hope to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Mr. Wang didn’t elaborate, but appeared to be referring to the joint military exercises conducted by the United States and South Korea last month. North Korea has accused Washington and Seoul of preparing to invade the North, and usually counters joint military drills between the two allies with its own military exercise or weapons tests.

“The United States has no hostile intent toward” North Korea, Sung Kim, the Biden administration’s special envoy, said on Tuesday in Tokyo, where he met with representatives from Japan and South Korea to discuss the North’s arsenal. He said Washington hoped that North Korea would “respond positively to our multiple offers to meet without preconditions.”

The latest tests showed that North Korea continued to improve its arsenal of missiles despite a series of resolutions from the United Nations Security Council that banned North Korea from developing or testing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula rose sharply in 2017, when North Korea tested three intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth underground nuclear test, leading to the sanctions from the United Nations. After the tests, the country claimed an ability to target the continental United States with a nuclear warhead.

Mr. Trump met with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, three times between 2018 and 2019, but the leaders failed to reach an agreement on lifting sanctions or rolling back the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Mr. Kim has since vowed to boost his country’s weapons capabilities.

With the recent tests, “North Korea is seeking to increase its leverage in coming talks” with Washington, said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

By timing its latest test to Mr. Wang’s visit to Seoul, North Korea also appeared to “express discontent with Beijing” that it was not providing enough economic assistance during the global health crisis, Mr. Lee said.

North Korea’s economy, already battered by years of devastating international sanctions, has suffered greatly as trade with China has plummeted in the coronavirus pandemic.

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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Married Kremlin Spies, a Shadowy Mission to Moscow and Unrest in Catalonia

BARCELONA, Spain — In the spring of 2019, an emissary of Catalonia’s top separatist leader traveled to Moscow in search of a political lifeline.

The independence movement in Catalonia, the semiautonomous region in Spain’s northeast, had been largely crushed after a referendum on breaking away two years earlier. The European Union and the United States, which supported Spain’s effort to keep the country intact, had rebuffed the separatists’ pleas for support.

But in Russia, a door was opening.

In Moscow, the emissary, Josep Lluis Alay, a senior adviser to the self-exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, met with current Russian officials, former intelligence officers and the well-connected grandson of a K.G.B. spymaster. The aim was to secure Russia’s help in severing Catalonia from the rest of Spain, according to a European intelligence report, which was reviewed by The New York Times.

recordings revealed a Russian plot to covertly finance the hard-right League party. In Britain, a Times investigation uncovered discussions among right-wing fringe figures about opening bank accounts in Moscow. And in Spain, the Russians have also offered assistance to far-right parties, according to the intelligence report.

Whether Mr. Alay knew it or not, many of the officials he met in Moscow are involved in what has become known as the Kremlin’s hybrid war against the West. This is a layered strategy involving propaganda and disinformation, covert financing of disruptive political movements, hacking and leaking information (as happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election) and “active measures” like assassinations meant to erode the stability of Moscow’s adversaries.

It is unclear what help, if any, the Kremlin has provided to the Catalan separatists. But Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow in 2019 were followed quickly by the emergence of a secretive protest group, Tsunami Democratic, which disrupted operations at Barcelona’s airport and cut off a major highway linking Spain to northern Europe. A confidential police report by Spain’s Guardia Civil, obtained by The Times, found that Mr. Alay was involved in the creation of the protest group.

Unit 29155, which has been linked to attempted coups and assassinations in Europe, had been present in Catalonia around the time of the referendum, but Spain has provided no evidence that they played an active role.

Many Catalan independence leaders have accused the authorities in Madrid of using the specter of Russian interference to tarnish what they described as a grass-roots movement of regular citizens. The referendum was supported by a fragile coalition of three political parties that quickly dissolved over disputes about ideology and strategy. Even as some parties pushed for a negotiated settlement with Madrid, Mr. Puigdemont, a former journalist with a Beatles-like mop of hair, has eschewed compromise.

Asked about the Russian outreach, the current Catalan government under President Pere Aragones distanced itself from Mr. Puigdemont.

railed against the “silence of the main European institutions.”

The European Union declared the Catalan independence referendum illegal. Russia’s position, by contrast, was more equivocal. President Vladimir V. Putin described the Catalan separatist drive as Europe’s comeuppance for supporting independence movements in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“There was a time when they welcomed the collapse of a whole series of governments in Europe, not hiding their happiness about this,” Mr. Putin said. “We talk about double standards all the time. There you go.”

In March 2019, Mr. Alay traveled to Moscow, just weeks after leaders of the Catalan independence movement went on trial. Three months later, Mr. Alay went again.

In Russia, according to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met with several active foreign intelligence officers, as well as Oleg V. Syromolotov, the former chief of counterintelligence for the Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, who now oversees counterterrorism as a deputy minister at the Russian foreign ministry.

Mr. Alay denied meeting Mr. Syromolotov and the officers but acknowledged meeting Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson of a famous K.G.B. spymaster, in order to secure an interview with Mr. Puigdemont on an international affairs program he hosted on Kremlin television. Last year, Mr. Primakov was appointed by Mr. Putin to run a Russian cultural agency that, according to European security officials, often serves as a front for intelligence operations.

“Good news from Moscow,” Mr. Alay later texted to Mr. Puigdemont, informing him of Mr. Primakov’s appointment. In another exchange, Mr. Dmitrenko told Mr. Alay that Mr. Primakov’s elevation “puts him in a very good position to activate things between us.”

Mr. Alay also confirmed meeting Andrei Bezrukov, a decorated former officer with Russia’s foreign intelligence service. For more than a decade, Mr. Bezrukov and his wife, Yelena Vavilova, were deep cover operatives living in the United States using the code names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley.

It was their story of espionage, arrest and eventual return to Russia in a spy swap that served as a basis for the television series “The Americans.” Mr. Alay appears to have become close with the couple. Working with Mr. Dmitrenko, he spent about three months in the fall of 2020 on a Catalan translation of Ms. Vavilova’s autobiographical novel “The Woman Who Can Keep Secrets,” according to his encrypted correspondence.

Mr. Alay, who is also a college professor and author, said he was invited by Mr. Bezrukov, who now teaches at a Moscow university, to deliver two lectures.

Mr. Alay was accompanied on each of his trips by Mr. Dmitrenko, 33, a Russian businessman who is married to a Catalan woman. Mr. Dmitrenko did not respond to requests for comment. But Spanish authorities have monitored him and in 2019 rejected a citizenship application from him because of his Russian contacts, according to a Spanish Ministry of Justice decision reviewed by The Times.

The decision said Mr. Dmitrenko “receives missions” from Russian intelligence and also “does different jobs” for leaders of Russian organized crime.

A few months after Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow, Catalonia erupted in protests.

A group calling itself Tsunami Democratic occupied the offices of one of Spain’s largest banks, closed a main highway between France and Spain for two days and orchestrated the takeover of the Barcelona airport, forcing the cancellation of more than a hundred flights.

The group’s origins have remained unclear, but one of the confidential police files stated that Mr. Alay attended a meeting in Geneva, where he and other independence activists finalized plans for Tsunami Democratic’s unveiling.

Three days after Tsunami Democratic occupied the Barcelona airport, two Russians flew from Moscow to Barcelona, the Catalan capital, according to flight records obtained by The Times.

One was Sergei Sumin, whom the intelligence report describes as a colonel in Russia’s Federal Protective Service, which oversees security for Mr. Putin and is not known for activities abroad.

The other was Artyom Lukoyanov, the adopted son of a top adviser to Mr. Putin, one who was deeply involved in Russia’s efforts to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.

According to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met the two men in Barcelona for a strategy session to discuss the independence movement, though the report offered no other details.

Mr. Alay denied any connection to Tsunami Democratic. He confirmed that he had met with Mr. Sumin and Mr. Lukoyanov at the request of Mr. Dmitrenko, but only to “greet them politely.”

Even as the protests faded, Mr. Puigdemont’s associates remained busy. His lawyer, Mr. Boye, flew to Moscow in February 2020 to meet Vasily Khristoforov, whom Western law enforcement agencies describe as a senior Russian organized crime figure. The goal, according to the report, was to enlist Mr. Khristoforov to help set up a secret funding channel for the independence movement.

In an interview, Mr. Boye acknowledged meeting in Moscow with Mr. Khristoforov, who is wanted in several countries including Spain on suspicion of financial crimes, but said they only discussed matters relating to Mr. Khristoforov’s legal cases.

By late 2020, Mr. Alay’s texts reveal an eagerness to keep his Russian contacts happy. In exchanges with Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Boye, he said they should avoid any public statements that might anger Moscow, especially about the democracy protests that Russia was helping to disperse violently in Belarus.

Mr. Puigdemont did not always heed the advice, appearing in Brussels with the Belarusian opposition and tweeting his support for the protesters, prompting Mr. Boye to text Mr. Alay that “we will have to tell the Russians that this was just to mislead.”

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Live Updates: Security Threats at Kabul Airport Prompt Multiple Warnings

U.S. Embassy warned Americans to stay away from the Kabul airport and told anyone outside the perimeter to “leave immediately,” citing unnamed security threats.

The British and Australian governments issued similar warnings, with Australian officials describing “an ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack.”

The warnings came as the last of the estimated 1,500 Americans and countless other foreigners still in Afghanistan try to make it to the airport to leave before the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31. Thousands of Afghan nationals are camped outside the perimeter of the airport in desperate attempts to escape on the last flights out, some with documents allowing them to leave.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about confidential assessments, confirmed that the United States was tracking a “specific” and “credible” threat at the airport from the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which has carried out dozens of attacks in recent years, many targeting ethnic minorities and other civilians.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul cited three areas of particular concern in its advisory.

“U.S. citizens who are at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately,” the statement said, without further detail.Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, said at a news conference Thursday that the Taliban will allow Australian citizens and visa holders to leave safely but added, “Our travel advice remains: You should not come to Hamid Karzai airport because it is not safe to do so, and if you are in Kabul, you should shelter in place, move to a safe location and await further advice.”

The U.S. government has been warning about potential security threats at the airport, and access to the airport has been adjusted accordingly, with some gates temporarily closed.

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Blinken Provides Update on U.S. Rescue Mission in Afghanistan

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken gave details on the number of U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals rescued so far, as well as the number of Americans still in Afghanistan who want to leave.

Since Aug. 14, more than 82,300 people have been safely flown out of Kabul. In the 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday, approximately 19,000 people were evacuated on 90 U.S. military and coalition flights. Our first priority is the evacuation of American citizens. Since Aug. 14, we have evacuated at least 4,500 U.S. citizens, and likely more. More than 500 of those Americans were evacuated in just the last day alone. Now, many of you have asked how many U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan who want to leave the country. Based on our analysis, starting on Aug. 14, when our evacuation operations began, there was then a population of as many as 6,000 American citizens in Afghanistan who wanted to leave. Over the last 10 days, roughly 4,500 of these Americans have been safely evacuated, along with immediate family members. Over the past 24 hours, we’ve been in direct contact with approximately 500 additional Americans and provided specific instructions on how to get to the airport safely. From my perspective, from the president’s perspective, this effort does not end on Aug. 31. It will continue for as long as it takes to help get people out of Afghanistan who wish to leave.

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken gave details on the number of U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals rescued so far, as well as the number of Americans still in Afghanistan who want to leave.CreditCredit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — About 1,500 American citizens remain in Afghanistan, and about a third of them are in contact with the U.S. government and hope to leave in the coming days, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Wednesday.

Some of the remaining 1,000 may not want to leave, Mr. Blinken said, describing an ever-changing estimate that the Biden administration has tried to pin down as American troops wind down an evacuation effort that has overwhelmed the airport in Kabul, the capital.

That number does not include legal permanent American residents or green card holders, he said.

Mr. Blinken said more than 4,500 U.S. citizens have so far been flown out of Afghanistan since Aug. 14, as the Taliban bore down on Kabul. He said the State Department has sent more than 20,000 emails and made 45,000 phone calls to identify and locate Americans in Afghanistan ahead of an Aug. 31 withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country after 20 years of war.

But Mr. Blinken sought to assure that any Americans or Afghans who have worked with the U.S. mission and want to leave after that date should be free to do so. “That effort will continue every day,” he said.

U.S. and allied planes flew an additional 19,200 people out of Kabul in the past 24 hours, officials said on Wednesday, as the Biden administration made substantial inroads into evacuating American citizens and Afghans who worked for the United States over the last 20 years.

More than 10,000 people were still inside the international airport in Kabul awaiting flights out of the country on Wednesday, and Afghans with proper credentials continued to be cleared into the airfield, Pentagon officials said.

With President Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of American troops rapidly approaching, tens of thousands of Afghans who qualify for special immigration visas are also waiting to be evacuated.

As of 3 a.m. in Washington, the United States had evacuated about 82,300 people from Kabul’s international airport since the government fell to Taliban forces.

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‘We Are Working as Fast as We Can’: U.S. Rushes Evacuations

A Pentagon spokesman said U.S. and allied forces would work “all the way to the end” to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul, but that the priority would shift to flying out American troops and equipment in the mission’s final days.

Ninety flights total yesterday that left the Kabul airport, that is accounted for 19,000 evacuees now safely out of Afghanistan within a 24-hour period. Since the U.S. and coalition forces began the evacuation, to date, approximately 88,000 have safely departed from Afghanistan. We will continue to evacuate needed populations all the way to the end. If if, if we have to, and we need to, if you’re an evacuee, that we can get out, we’re going to continue to get you out right up until the end. But in those last couple of days, we’re going to try to preserve as much capability as we can at the airport, as you might imagine. So in those last couple of days, we will begin to prioritize military capabilities and military resources to move out. That doesn’t mean that if you’re an evacuee and you need to get out, that we’re not going to try to get you out, but that we will have to reserve some capacity in those last couple of days to prioritize the military footprint leaving. We know there are a lot of desperate people who want to leave, and that’s why we are working as fast as we can. And you saw the numbers that we continue to be able to get out. We’re working as fast as we can to get out American citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and vulnerable Afghans.

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A Pentagon spokesman said U.S. and allied forces would work “all the way to the end” to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul, but that the priority would shift to flying out American troops and equipment in the mission’s final days.CreditCredit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that American officers in Kabul, including the top commander, Rear Adm. Peter G. Vaseley, were talking daily with Taliban counterparts to ensure safe passage of Americans and Afghan allies with proper credentials.

Experts predict that hundreds of thousands of Afghans will be targeted by the Taliban if they stay, including Afghan security forces, government officials, women’s rights advocates and other defenders of democracy. Those Afghans are desperately hoping to join the U.S. military’s airlift before it begins to wind down, potentially as soon as this weekend.

For the third time in a week, American military helicopters rescued Americans inside Kabul. On Tuesday, about 20 American citizens who were flown onto the airfield from a location inside the city, Maj. Gen. William Taylor told reporters. A similar flight rescued 169 Americans from a Kabul hotel meeting place last week.

Though Mr. Biden has vowed to stick to the Aug. 31 exit plan, as the Taliban have demanded, he also has instructed Mr. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin to draw up plans to push back the date if necessary.

The Taliban have warned of potential reprisals should the United States renege on its promise to withdraw its forces by the deadline, and Mr. Biden on Tuesday noted the danger to American troops should they remain much longer.

Beyond the Taliban, extremists affiliated with the Islamic State are also believed to pose a threat to the evacuation effort that has drawn crowds of people to Kabul’s airport gates, clamoring to be allowed on one of the flights that are departing every 45 minutes.

“I’m determined to ensure that we complete our mission,” Mr. Biden said at the White House on Tuesday. “I’m also mindful of the increasing risks that I’ve been briefed on and the need to factor those risks in. There are real and significant challenges that we also have to take into consideration.”

But the dwindling hours are weighing heavily on the minds of people seeking to flee Afghanistan and members of Congress who want the United States to retain a presence there until Americans and high-risk Afghans can get out.

The Pentagon spokesman, Mr. Kirby, said that the military would put high priority on flying out American troops and equipment in the mission’s final days. “There will be a transition more toward getting military assets out as we get closer to the end, but again, we’re going to continue to work the evacuation mission right up until the last day,” he said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a senior Taliban official, after a briefing in the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kabul on Tuesday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — In his first sit-down interview with a Western media outlet since the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan, one of the group’s leaders on Wednesday offered a portrait of a group intent on rebuilding a country shattered by decades of war.

“We want to build the future, and forget what happened in the past,” the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in an interview with The New York Times. He rejected widespread fears that the Taliban are already exacting vengeance on those who opposed them and want to reimpose the harsh controls on women that made them notorious when they ruled the country 20 years ago.

The interview came just a day after Mr. Mujahid warned the women of Afghanistan that it might be safest for them to remain home until more rank-and-file Taliban fighters have been trained in how not to mistreat them.

It was a notable acknowledgment of the many changes to Afghan society that greeted the Taliban when they re-entered a city they had not controlled for two decades.

Many of those changes involve women. Not only have they been free to leave home unaccompanied — dressed as they see fit — they have also returned to school and jobs, and their images can be seen on everything from billboards to TV screens.

On Wednesday, Mr. Mujahid suggested that longer-term, women would be free to resume their daily routines.

Concerns that the Taliban would once again force them to stay in their homes or cover their faces are baseless, he said. He added that the requirement they be accompanied by a male guardian, known as a mahram, was misunderstood. It applies only to journeys of three days or longer, he said.

“If they go to school, the office, university, or the hospital, they don’t need a mahram,” said Mr. Mujahid, who also serves as the Taliban’s chief spokesman.

He also offered assurances to Afghans trying to leave the country, saying — contrary to news reports based on his news conference on Tuesday, including in The Times — that those with valid travel documents would not be prevented from entering the airport.

“We said that people who don’t have proper documents aren’t allowed to go,” Mr. Mujahid said. “They need passports and visas for the countries they’re going to, and then they can leave by air. If their documents are valid, then we’re not going to ask what they were doing before.”

He also denied allegations that the Taliban have been searching for former interpreters and others who worked for the American military, and claimed that they would be safe in their own country. And he expressed frustration at the Western evacuation efforts.

“They shouldn’t interfere in our country and take out our human resources: doctors, professors and other people we need here,” Mr. Mujahid said. “In America, they might become dishwashers or cooks. It’s inhuman.”

For the past decade, Mr. Mujahid had been a key link between the militants and the news media, but remained faceless. On Wednesday, he granted the interview at the Ministry of Information and Culture as Taliban leaders and other Afghan power brokers were engaging in protracted discussions about the future shape of the country.

Mr. Mujahid is seen as likely to be the future minister of information and culture. Fluent in both Pashto and Dari, the country’s principal languages, Mr. Mujahid, 43, described himself as a native of Paktia Province and a graduate in Islamic jurisprudence from the well-known Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa in Pakistan.

Despite the tense situation at the airport on Wednesday, where thousands of people were still crowded around most entrance gates, Mr. Mujahid expressed hope that the Taliban would build good relations with the international community, pointing out areas of cooperation around counterterrorism, opium eradication and the reduction of refugees to the West.

Although he sought to convey a much more tolerant image of the Taliban, Mr. Mujahid did confirm one report: Music will not be allowed in public.

“Music is forbidden in Islam,” he said, “but we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”

Matthieu Aikins and

Selling bread on a street in Kabul on Saturday.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The Americans are all but gone, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban now rule the streets of Kabul. Overnight, millions of Kabul residents have been left to navigate an uncertain transition after 20 years of U.S.-backed rule.

Government services are largely unavailable. Residents are struggling to lead their daily lives in an ecconomy that, propped up for the past generation by American aid, is now in free fall. Banks are closed, cash is growing scarce, and food prices are rising.

Yet relative calm has reigned over Kabul, the capital, in sharp contrast to the chaos at its airport. Many residents are hiding in their homes or venturing out only cautiously to see what life might be like under their new rulers.

Even residents who said they feared the Taliban were struck by the relative order and quiet, but for some the calm has been ominous.

A resident named Mohib said that streets were deserted in his section of the city, with people hunkering down in their homes, “scared and terrorized.”

“People feel the Taliban may come any moment to take away everything from them,” he said.

Outside the international airport in Kabul on Wednesday. The biggest immediate threat to the Americans and the Taliban as the United States escalates its evacuation is ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The United States has been battling the Taliban and their militant partners in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, for 20 years.

But the biggest immediate threat to both the Americans and the Taliban as the United States escalates its evacuation at the Kabul airport before an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline is a common rival that is lesser known: Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.

Created six years ago by disaffected Pakistani Taliban, ISIS-K has carried out dozens of attacks in Afghanistan this year. American military and intelligence analysts say threats from the group include a bomb-laden truck, suicide bombers infiltrating the crowd outside Hamid Karzai International Airport and mortar strikes against the airfield.

These threats, coupled with new demands by the Taliban for the United States to leave by Aug. 31, probably influenced President Biden’s decision on Tuesday to stick to that deadline. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Mr. Biden said.

The threats lay bare a complicated dynamic between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, and their bitter rival, ISIS-K, in what analysts say portends a bloody struggle involving thousands of foreign fighters on both sides.

A United Nations report in June concluded that 8,000 to 10,000 fighters from Central Asia, the North Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan and the Xinjiang region in western China have poured into Afghanistan in recent months. Most are associated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, the report said, but others are allied with ISIS-K.

“Afghanistan has now become the Las Vegas of the terrorists, of the radicals and of the extremists,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a former Afghan security official. “People all over the world, radicals and extremists, are chanting, celebrating the Taliban victory. This is paving the way for other extremists to come to Afghanistan.”

Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Paris.

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Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would continue to support Afghans remaining in the country after the U.S. withdraws troops and ends its evacuation mission.CreditCredit…Tobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Germany will maintain support for Afghans who remain in their country after the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal and evacuation mission passes in six days, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday. She also called for talks with the Taliban to preserve progress made in Afghanistan in the last two decades.

Speaking to a session of Parliament convened to discuss the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, the chancellor defended Germany’s decision to join the international intervention there in 2001.

“Our goal must be to preserve as much as possible what we have achieved in terms of changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years,” Ms. Merkel told lawmakers. “This is something the international community must talk about with the Taliban.”

She cited changes such as improved access to basic necessities, with 70 percent of Afghans now having access to clean drinking water and 90 percent having access to electricity, in addition to better health care for women.

“But what is clear is that the Taliban are reality in Afghanistan and many people are afraid,” Ms. Merkel said. “This new reality is bitter, but we must come to terms with it.”

Germany pulled its last contingent of soldiers, about 570 troops, out of Afghanistan in June, but several hundred Germans were still engaged in development work funded by Berlin, and the German government believed they would be able to remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces.

Ms. Merkel defended her government’s decision to leave development workers on the ground, saying that they had hoped to continue to provide essential support for Afghans after the troop withdrawal, and that an earlier retreat could have appeared as if they were abandoning people.

“At that time there were very good reasons to stand beside the people in Afghanistan after the troops were gone,” Ms. Merkel said.

But the opposition leaders criticized her government for not developing a plan to bring people to safety in the spring, when other European countries were evacuating citizens and Afghan support staff.

“The situation in Afghanistan is a catastrophe, but it did not come out of nowhere,” said Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democratic Party, which together with the Green Party petitioned Parliament in June to begin evacuations of German staff and Afghans who could be in danger.

Ms. Merkel did not apologize, instead calling for a deeper examination of where the West went wrong in Afghanistan and what lessons could be learned. That will be the work of the next government, as she is stepping down after the German elections on Sept. 26.

“Many things in history take a long time. That is why we must not and will not forget Afghanistan,” said Ms. Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany.

“Even if it doesn’t look like it in this bitter hour,” she said, “I remain convinced that no force or ideology can resist the drive for justice and peace.”

A C-17 military transport plane taking off from the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

When President Biden briefly referred to the Berlin airlift — the operation 73 years ago to feed a city whose access had been choked off by the Soviet Union — in describing the United States’ evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, he was revealing the inspiration for a broader plan to redeem America’s messy exit.

After 10 days of missed signals, desperate crowds and violence around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Mr. Biden and his team are eager to shift the narrative about the chaotic end of America’s longest war.

Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, said on Monday that the scores of rescue flights the United States was initiating each day were likely to be regarded as “one of the largest airlifts in history.”

“There is no other country in the world who could pull something like this off — bar none,” he said.

As of Tuesday evening, 12,000 people had been evacuated from Kabul during the previous 12 hours, Biden said. That brought the total number evacuated since the end of July to 75,900 people, the president said.

The comparison to the rescue operation in Berlin is not a bad one. Berlin had been divided since the end of World War II, and tensions were growing. The United States and Britain took to the sky to carry in material by plane.

The two countries managed to get just shy of 300,000 flights into Berlin over 11 months, from June 24, 1948, to May 11, 1949, and the State Department’s record notes that “at the height of the campaign, one plane landed every 45 seconds at Tempelhof Airport,” which until recently was Berlin’s main air hub.

People protest the situation in Afghanistan in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva last week.
Credit…Martial Trezzini/KEYSTONE, via Associated Press

The United Nations leadership faced growing anger from staff unions Wednesday over what some called its failure to protect Afghan co-workers and their families, who remain stuck in Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban even as the majority of the organization’s non-Afghan staff have been relocated to other countries.

Many of the Afghan employees, their foreign colleagues say, are in hiding or are reluctant to keep working, fearful of reprisals by triumphant Taliban militants who may perceive them as apostates, traitors and agents of foreign interference.

That fear has persisted even though the Taliban’s hierarchy has indicated that the U.N. should be permitted to work in the country unimpeded during and after the forces of the United States and NATO withdraw, a pullout that is officially scheduled for completion in less than a week.

An internal U.N. document reported by Reuters on Wednesday said Taliban operatives had detained and beaten some Afghan employees of the United Nations. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres, did not confirm or deny the report but said it was “critical is that the authorities in charge in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan realize that they have the responsibility to protect U.N. premises and for the safety of U.N. staff.”

Mr. Guterres has repeatedly said the U.N. fully supports the Afghan staff, who are said to number between 3,000 and 3,400, and that he is doing everything in his power to ensure their safety. Mr. Dujarric said about 10 percent of those Afghan workers are women, who are especially at risk of facing Taliban repression.

The secretary general reiterated his assurances during a private virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday with staff members, said Mr. Dujarric, who told reporters that Mr. Guterres “understands the staff’s deep anxiety about what the future holds.”

But rank-and-file staff members of the United Nations have grown increasingly skeptical of Mr. Guterres’s pronouncements. A resolution passed on Tuesday by the U.N. staff union in New York urged Mr. Guterres to take steps that would enable Afghan staff members to avoid “unacceptable residual risks by using evacuation from Afghanistan as soon as possible.”

U.N. officials have said they are powerless to issue visas to Afghan personnel without cooperation from other countries willing to host them. U.N. officials also have said the organization remains committed to providing services in Afghanistan, where roughly half the population needs humanitarian aid. Such services, including food and health care, are impossible to conduct without local staff.

The town hall was held a few days after a second batch of non-Afghan U.N. staff had been airlifted from Kabul. Many of the roughly 350 non-Afghan U.N. personnel who had been in the country, including Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, are now working remotely from Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The unequal treatment of non-Afghan and Afghan personnel working for the U.N. has become an increasingly bitter sore point between management and staff at the global organization. An online petition started this past weekend by staff union members calling on Mr. Guterres to do more to help Afghan employees and their families had, as of Wednesday, garnered nearly 6,000 signatures.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this item misidentified the U.N. staff union organization that passed a resolution urging the U.N. secretary general to help Afghan employees evacuate Afghanistan. It was the U.N. staff union in New York, not the coordinating committee of the association of staff unions.

A defaced beauty shop window display in Kabul on Sunday.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

When the Taliban were last in power, Afghan women were generally not allowed to leave their homes except under certain narrowly defined conditions. Those who did risked being beaten, tortured or executed.

In the days since the Taliban swept back into control, their leaders have insisted that this time will be different. Women, they say, will be allowed to work. Girls will be free to attend school. At least within the confines of their interpretation of Islam.

But early signs have not been promising, and that pattern continued on Tuesday with a statement from a Taliban spokesman that women should stay home, at least for now. Why? Because some of the militants have not yet been trained not to hurt them, he said.

The spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, called it a “temporary” policy intended to protect women until the Taliban could ensure their safety.

“We are worried our forces who are new and have not been yet trained very well may mistreat women,” Mr. Mujahid said. “We don’t want our forces, God forbid, to harm or harass women.”

Mr. Mujahid said that women should stay home “until we have a new procedure,” and that “their salaries will paid in their homes.”

His statement echoed comments from Ahmadullah Waseq, the deputy of the Taliban’s cultural affairs committee, who told The New York Times this week that the Taliban had “no problem with working women,” as long as they wore hijabs.

But, he said: “For now, we are asking them to stay home until the situation gets normal. Now it is a military situation.”

During the first years of Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, women were forbidden to work outside the home or even to leave the house without a male guardian. They could not attend school, and faced public flogging if they were found to have violated morality rules, like one requiring that they be fully covered.

The claim that restrictions on women’s lives are a temporary necessity is not new to Afghan women. The Taliban made similar claims the last time they controlled Afghanistan, said Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.

“The explanation was that the security was not good, and they were waiting for security to be better, and then women would be able to have more freedom,” she said. “But of course in those years they were in power, that moment never arrived — and I can promise you Afghan women hearing this today are thinking it will never arrive this time either.”

Brian Castner, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International who was in Afghanistan until last week, said that if the Taliban intended to treat women better, they would need to retrain their forces. “You can’t have a movement like the Taliban that has operated a certain way for 25 years and then just because you take over a government, all of the fighters and everyone in your organization just does something differently,” he said.

But, Mr. Castner said, there is no indication that the Taliban intend to fulfill that or any other promises of moderation. Amnesty International has received reports of fighters going door to door with lists of names, despite their leaders’ public pledges not to retaliate against Afghans who worked with the previous government.

“The rhetoric and the reality are not matching at all, and I think that the rhetoric is more than just disingenuous,” Mr. Castner said. “If a random Taliban fighter commits a human rights abuse or violation, that’s just kind of random violence, that’s one thing. But if there’s a systematic going to people’s homes and looking for people, that’s not a random fighter that’s untrained — that’s a system working. The rhetoric is a cover for what’s really happening.”

In Kabul on Wednesday, women in parts of the city with minimal Taliban presence were going out “with normal clothes, as it was before the Taliban,” said a resident named Shabaka. But in central areas with many Taliban fighters, few women ventured out, and those who did wore burqas, said Sayed, a civil servant.

Ms. Barr, of Human Rights Watch, said that in the week since the Taliban said the new government would preserve women’s rights “within the bounds of Islamic law,” the Afghan women she has spoken to offered the same skeptical assessment: “They’re trying to look normal and legitimate, and this will last as long as the international community and the international press are still there. And then we’ll see what they’re really like again.”

It might not take long, Ms. Barr suggested.

“This announcement just highlights to me that they don’t feel like they need to wait,” she said.

The New York Times’s Afghanistan staff and their families arriving at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City on Wednesday.
Credit…Azam Ahmed/The New York Times

A group of Afghans who worked for The New York Times, along with their families, touched down safely early Wednesday — not in New York or Washington, but at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City.

Mexican officials, unlike their counterparts in the United States, were able to cut through the red tape of their immigration system to quickly provide documents that, in turn, allowed the Afghans to fly from Kabul’s embattled airport to Qatar.

The documents promised that the Afghans would receive temporary humanitarian protection in Mexico while they explored further options in the United States or elsewhere.

“We are right now committed to a foreign policy promoting free expression, liberties and feminist values,” Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said in a telephone interview.

He cited a national tradition of welcoming people including the 19th-century Cuban independence leader José Martí, German Jews and South Americans fleeing coups, and he said that Mexico had opened its doors to the Afghan journalists “in order to protect them and to be consistent with this policy.”

But the path of the Afghan journalists and their families to Mexico was as arbitrary, personal and tenuous as anything else in the frantic and scattershot evacuation of Kabul.

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A group of former mujahedeen fighters and Afghan Army commandos rallied 70 miles north of Kabul in the Panjshir Valley, the last area of Afghanistan not under Taliban control.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Just days after the Taliban swept into Kabul and toppled Afghanistan’s government, a group of former mujahedeen fighters and Afghan commandos said they had begun a war of resistance in the last area of the country that is not under Taliban control: a narrow valley with a history of repelling invaders.

The man leading them is Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of the storied mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. And their struggle faces long odds: The resistance fighters are surrounded by the Taliban, have supplies that will soon start dwindling and have no visible outside support.

For now the resistance has merely two assets: the Panjshir Valley, 70 miles north of Kabul, which has a history of repelling invaders, and the legendary Massoud name.

Spokesmen for Ahmad Massoud insist that he has attracted thousands of soldiers to the valley, including remnants of the Afghan Army’s special forces and some of his father’s experienced guerrilla commanders, as well as activists and others who reject the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.

The spokesmen, some of whom were with him in the Panjshir Valley and some who were outside the country drumming up support, said that Mr. Massoud has stocks of weapons and matériel, including American helicopters, but needs more.

‘‘We’re waiting for some opportunity, some support,” said Hamid Saifi, a former colonel in the Afghan National Army, and now a commander in Mr. Massoud’s resistance, who was reached in the Panjshir Valley by telephone on Sunday. “Maybe some countries will be ready for this great work. So far, all countries we talked to are quiet. America, Europe, China, Russia, all of them are quiet.’’

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Pelosi: ‘Real Concern’ Over Lawmakers’ Kabul Trip

Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged lawmakers not to travel to Afghanistan against government advisement, after Representatives Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer, both veterans, secretly flew to Kabul unauthorized to witness evacuations.

There’s a real concern about members being in the region. And so, with the, shall we say, shall we say, knowledge of the Secretary of Defense as to what the risk would be to these members, the resources necessary to facilitate their visit and to protect them was an opportunity cost of what we needed to do to be evacuating as many people as possible. Point is, is that we don’t want anybody to think that this was a good idea and that they should try to follow suit. Again, I haven’t — I’ve been busy — it’s an important thing we want to make sure they were safe for themselves, but also for what consequences could flow and ramification if something happened to them while they were there. So they have to make their own case as to why they went and this or that. But it is, it was not, in my view, a good idea.

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged lawmakers not to travel to Afghanistan against government advisement, after Representatives Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer, both veterans, secretly flew to Kabul unauthorized to witness evacuations.CreditCredit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Two members of Congress secretly flew to Kabul without authorization on Tuesday to witness the frenzied evacuation of Americans and Afghans, infuriating Biden administration officials and prompting Speaker Nancy Pelosi to urge other lawmakers not to follow their example.

The two members — Representatives Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan, both veterans — said in a statement that the purpose of their trip was “to provide oversight on the executive branch.” Both lawmakers have blistered the Biden administration in recent weeks, accusing top officials of dragging their feet on evacuating American citizens and Afghan allies.

“There is no place in the world right now where oversight matters more,” they said.

Credit…Erin Schaff for The New York Times
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

But administration officials were furious that Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer had entered Afghanistan on an unauthorized, undisclosed trip, arguing that efforts to tend to the lawmakers had drained resources badly needed to help evacuate those already in the country.

The trip was reported earlier by The Associated Press.

Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer said that they had left Afghanistan “on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence,” and that they had taken other steps to “minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground.” They were in Kabul for less than 24 hours.

Still, Ms. Pelosi pressed other lawmakers not to do the same.

“Member travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding countries would unnecessarily divert needed resources from the priority mission of safely and expeditiously evacuating Americans and Afghans at risk from Afghanistan,” Ms. Pelosi wrote in a letter. She did not refer to Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer by name.

In their statement on Tuesday night, the congressmen sharpened their criticism of the administration’s handling of the evacuation, saying that “Washington should be ashamed of the position we put our service members in” and that the situation they had witnessed on the ground was more dire than they had expected.

“After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late,” they wrote, “that no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time.”

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Afghanistan Live Updates: 20-Year U.S. War Ending as It Began, With Taliban Ruling Afghanistan

announced on Twitter that he was forming a coordinating council together with Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Afghan delegation to peace talks, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hesb-i-Islami party, to manage a peaceful transfer of power. Mr. Karzai called on both government and Taliban forces to act with restraint.

But the Taliban appeared to ignore his appeal and advanced into the city on its own terms.

The Taliban’s lead negotiator in talks with the government, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, congratulated all of Afghanistan for the victory. “Now it will be shown how we can serve our nation,” he said. “We can assure that our nation has a peaceful life and a better future.”

Mr. Baradar made the comments in a video posted on social media, surrounded by other members of the Taliban delegation to the talks in Doha, Qatar.

“There was no expectation that we would achieve victory in this war,” he said. “But this came with the help of Allah, therefore we should be thankful to Him, be humble in front of Him, so that we do not act arrogantly.”

Al Jazeera reported that it had interviewed Taliban fighters who were holding a news conference in the presidential palace in Kabul, the capital. The fighters said they were working to secure Kabul so that leaders in Qatar and outside the capital could return safely. Al Jazeera reported that the fighters had taken down the flag of Afghanistan.

As it became clear that Taliban fighters were entering Kabul, thousands of Afghans who had sought refuge there after fleeing the insurgents’ brutal military offensive watched with growing alarm as the local police seemed to fade from their usual checkpoints. The U.S. Embassy warned Americans to not head to the airport in Kabul after reports that the facility was taking fire, and said that the situation was “changing quickly.”

Late in Kabul’s evening, President Ghani released a written statement on Facebook saying he had departed the country to save the capital from further bloodshed.

“Today I was presented with a hard choice,” he wrote. “I should stand to face the armed Taliban who wanted to enter the presidential palace or leave the dear country that I dedicated my life to protecting the past twenty years.”

“If I had stayed, countless countrymen would have been martyred and Kabul city would have been ruined,” he added, “in which case a disaster would have been brought upon this city of five million.”

At 6:30 p.m. local time, the Taliban issued a statement that their forces were moving into police districts in order to maintain security in areas that had been abandoned by the government security forces. Taliban fighters, meeting no resistance, took up positions in parts of the city, after Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, posted the statement on Twitter.

“The Islamic Emirates ordered its forces to enter the areas of Kabul city from which the enemy has left because there is risk of theft and robbery,” the statement said. The Taliban had been ordered not to harm civilians and not to enter individual homes, it added. “Our forces are entering Kabul city with all caution.”

As the sun set behind the mountains, the traffic was clogged up as crowds grew bigger, with more and more Taliban fighters appearing on motorbikes, police pickups and even a Humvee that once belonged to the American-sponsored Afghan security forces.

Earlier in the afternoon, Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal announced that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul, and that his forces were maintaining security.

“The city’s security is guaranteed. There will be no attack on the city,” he said. “The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God willing, power will be transferred.”

Mr. Mirzakwal later announced a 9 p.m. curfew in the capital, and called on its residents to go home.

Mr. Ghani left Kabul in a plane with his wife, Rula Ghani, and two close aides, and arrived in Uzbekistan, according to a member of the Afghan delegation in Doha, Qatar, that has been in peace negotiations with the Taliban since last year. The official asked not to be named because he did not want to be identified speaking about the president’s movements.

It could not be confirmed that Mr. Ghani was in Uzbekistan, and there were reports that he had gone to other countries.

In a Facebook video, Mr. Abdullah, former chief executive of the Afghan government, criticized Mr. Ghani for fleeing.

“That the former president of Afghanistan has left the country and its people in this bad situation, God will call him to account and the people of Afghanistan will make their judgment,” Mr. Abdullah said in the video.

In negotiations being managed by Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Ghani had been set to travel to Doha on Sunday with a larger group to negotiate the transfer of power, but flew instead to Uzbekistan, the peace delegation member said.

Mr. Ghani had resisted pressure to step down. In a recorded speech aired on Saturday, he pledged to “prevent further instability” and called for “remobilizing” the country’s military. But the president was increasingly isolated, and his words seemed detached from the reality around him.

With rumors rife and reliable information hard to come by, the streets were filled during the day with scenes of panic and desperation.

“Greetings, the Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping,” said Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, in a post shared widely on Facebook. Filming herself as she fled on foot, out of breath and clutching at her headscarf, she shouted at others to escape while they could.

“Hey woman, girl, don’t go that way!” she called out. “Some people don’t know what is going on,” she went on. “Where are you going? Go quickly.”

Wais Omari, 20, a street vendor in the city, said the situation was already dire and he feared for the future.

“If it gets worse, I will hide in my home,” he said.

Christina Goldbaum, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Carlotta Gall, Ruhullah Khapalwak, Sharif Hassan, Jim Huylebroek, Najim Rahim, and Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

Leaving Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Sunday as the Taliban looked set to take over.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Panic gripped the Afghan capital, Kabul, Sunday as Taliban fighters started arriving in the city, inmates broke out of the main prison on the east side of the city, and the American-backed government appeared to crumble.

By the afternoon, President Ashraf Ghani was reported to have fled. And as American forces focused their energies on evacuation flights for embassy staff and other personnel, Afghan government officials were shown in video footage accepting a handover of power to their Taliban counterparts in several cities.

Early in the day, senior Afghan politicians were seen boarding planes at Kabul airport. Bagram Air Base was taken by Taliban forces midday Sunday as was the provincial town of Khost in eastern Afghanistan, according to Afghan media reports. The fall of Khost was part of a domino-like collapse of power of astonishing speed that saw city after city fall in just the last week, leaving Kabul as the last major city in government hands.

Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal announced in a video statement in the early afternoon that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul and sought to reassure residents, saying that the security forces would remain in their posts to ensure security in the city.

“As the minister of interior, we have ordered all Afghan National Security Forces divisions and members to stabilize Kabul,” he said in a video statement released on the Facebook page of the ministry at 2 p.m. local time. “There will be no attack on the city. The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God Willing, power will be transferred.”

But residents seemed unconvinced by their leaders’ assurances. In the center of the city people were pictured painting over advertisements and posters of women at beauty salons, apparently preparing for a takeover by the fundamentalist Taliban who do not allow images of humans or animal life, and have traditionally have banned music and the mixing of the sexes.

Residents confirmed that police had abandoned many of their posts or changed into civilian clothes. The Taliban denied rumors that their chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was already in the capital and preparing to take over control at the Interior Ministry.

Throughout the day, surreal scenes played out as it appeared ever more clear the Taliban were taking over.

The insurgency has long had its own power structure of shadow governors appointed for every province, and Sunday it was clear who was in control in strategic areas. The governors and tribal and political leaders who had been in power were shown in videos formally handing control to their Taliban counterparts in the strategic cities of Kandahar, the main stronghold of the south, and in Nangarhar, the main city of the east.

But in Kabul fears of the city being overrun were running high after a breakout of prisoners, many of them members of the Taliban, from the main prison at Pul-i-Charkhi.

“Look at this, the whole people are let free,” a man said as he filmed a video footage of people carrying bundles walking away from the prison, posted on Facebook. “This is the Day of Judgment.”

The breakout seems to have been by the prisoners from the inside, rather than an attack by Taliban forces from the outside.

Some Afghans still found room for humor amid the chaos: “Taliban have reached Kabul airport … their speed is faster than 5G,” one resident of Kabul posted on Facebook.

But others fled, though it is unclear where they could go with the Taliban in control of so much of the country.

“Greetings, the Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping,” said Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, in a post shared widely on Facebook. Filming herself as she fled on foot, out of breath and clutching at her head scarf, she called on passers-by to get away.

The former president Hamid Karzai and other leaders tried to step into the vacuum, and announced they were not leaving. Mr. Karzai, who has been involved in discussions with the Taliban for an interim government, posted a video on his Facebook page of himself with his daughters in his garden as helicopters sounded overhead.

“My dear residents of Kabul, I want to say that I and my daughters and family are here with you,” he said. “We are working with the leader of the Taliban to resolve the difficulties of Afghanistan in a peaceful way.”

Abdullah Abdullah, who has led recent talks with the Taliban also made a video statement from his garden.

“The last few days have been very hard for our countrymen all over the country,” he said. He called on the Taliban to negotiate “so that the security situation does not deteriorate and our people do not suffer further.”

As news broke that the president had left the country, Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a former head of intelligence who has been fighting against the Taliban from the 1990s, tweeted that he would not surrender.

Yet the Afghan security forces seemed to be melting away. Abdul Jabar Safi, head of the Kabul Industrial Park, an area of hundreds of factories and businesses, said business owners were trying to fend off looters with a few pistols and rifles left them by the government guards.

“We want the Taliban to reach us as soon as possible so they can secure the area,” he said when reached by telephone. “We are in touch with the Taliban and they have assured us that until they reach the industrial park we must keep the security of the park by ourselves.”

Officials at the National Museum of Kabul on the western side of Kabul also appealed through a western official for help, saying that police guards had abandoned their post outside the museum and that they feared the museum, which was badly looted in the 1990s, would fall prey again to thieves.

The entrance to the United States embassy in Kabul after staff were evacuated to the airport on Sunday.
Credit…Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. embassy warned Americans not to head to the airport in Kabul because of a situation that was “changing quickly” after the Taliban entered the city on Sunday.

Witnesses at the civilian domestic terminal said they had heard occasional gunshots and said thousands of people had crammed into the terminal and filled the parking lots, desperately seeking flights out.

“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport,” the embassy said in a statement. “There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place.”

Late Sunday, the State and Defense Departments issued a statement saying the U.S. was working to secure control of the airport and to speed up the evacuation using civilian and military flights.

“Tomorrow and over the coming days,” the statement said, “we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”

The Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday, completing the near total takeover of Afghanistan two decades after the American military drove them from power. A frenzied evacuation of U.S. diplomats and civilians kicked into high gear last week, while Afghans made a mad dash to banks, their homes and the airport. Crowds of people ran down the streets as the sound of gunfire echoed in downtown Kabul.

Helicopter after helicopter — including massive Chinooks with their twin engines, and speedy Black Hawks that had been the workhorse of the grinding war — touched down and then took off loaded with passengers. Some shot flares overhead.

On Saturday, President Biden accelerated the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to aid in the evacuation. On Sunday, orders went out to deploy another 1,000, temporarily bringing the U.S. presence there to 6,000, according to a Pentagon official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and was granted anonymity.

Those being evacuated over the weekend included a core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul, according to a senior administration official. They were being moved to a compound at the international airport, where they would stay for an unspecified amount of time, the official said.

The runway of the airport was filled with a constellation of uniforms from different nations. They joined contractors, diplomats and civilians all trying to catch a flight out of the city. Those who were eligible to fly were given special bracelets, denoting their status as noncombatants.

For millions of Afghans, including tens of thousands who assisted the U.S. efforts in the country for years, there were no bracelets. They were stuck in the city.

Hundreds of people swarmed to the civilian side of the airport in the hopes of boarding planes out, but by evening scores were still waiting inside the terminal and milling around on the apron amid the constant roar of planes taking off from the adjacent military air base. A long line of people waited outside the check-in gate, unsure if the flights they had booked out of the country would arrive.

While President Biden has defended his decision to hold firm and pull the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, his administration has become increasingly worried about images that could evoke a foreign policy disaster of the past: the fall of Saigon at the end of the conflict in Vietnam in 1975.

Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Christina Goldbaum, Sharif Hassan, Jim Huylebroek, Najim Rahimand Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

The white Taliban flag flying above a Coca-Cola advertisement at a roundabout in Kabul on Sunday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

A conference call between members of Congress and the Biden administration’s top diplomatic and military leaders on Afghanistan turned contentious on Sunday, as lawmakers pressed the administration on how intelligence on the Taliban could have failed so badly and how long the military will secure the Kabul airport.

Lawmakers said the 45-minute call with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not particularly revelatory.

“It was, I would say, a rote exercise in telling us what we had already learned from the media and social media,” said Representative Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan and a former Army reservist who did conflict analysis in Afghanistan.

The questioning was pointed and at times contentious. Much of it centered on which Afghans the United States would get out of Afghanistan — and how.

Representative Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who was a State Department official in the Obama administration and a former leader of Human Rights Watch, pressed for answers on how long the U.S. military would be able to keep its hold on the Kabul airport, so that charter and commercial flights can continue.

Lawmakers also asked whether the Afghans that Americans are trying to help leave would go beyond those who worked for the embassy, interpreters for the military and others with special immigrant visas. The briefers assured them that the United States would try to help a broader group, including human rights and women’s rights activists, journalists and students at the American University of Afghanistan.

“I want to make sure we don’t pick up and leave when all the Americans and S.I.V.’s are out,” Mr. Malinowski said, referring to the special visa holders.

But there is no guarantee that all Afghans who want to get out will be able to do so.

“It is overwhelmingly clear to me that this has been a cascade of failures at the Defense Department, with the intelligence community and within our political community,” Mr. Meijer said. “And nothing on the call gave me the confidence that even the magnitude of the failures has been comprehended.”

A rally outside the White House on Sunday.
Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

As their homeland fell once again into the hands of the Taliban, more than 300 Afghan Americans went to the White House on Sunday to make their frustrations known.

Demonstrators, some with young children and babies in strollers, spilled into Lafayette Square, wielding signs that read “Help Afghan kids” and “America betrayed us.”

Some held up the flag of Afghanistan. Others draped it over their shoulders. They stood in a circle around organizers who used bull horns to get their message out.

“We want justice,” they declared.

Among those attending the three-hour protest was Sohaila Samadyar, a 43-year-old banker in Washington, who was there with her 10-year-old son. Ms. Samadyar, who immigrated to America in 2000, said she wanted to raise awareness about Afghans still stuck in the country, like her brother and sister in Kabul.

Ms. Samadyar said that she voted for President Biden in November, but that she now regretted that decision, “disappointed” in his handling of the war.

“He has basically disregarded the Afghan community,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how fast everything has changed.”

Yasameen Anwar, a 19-year-old sophomore in college, drove about three hours from Richmond, Va., with her friends and sister to attend the protest. Ms. Anwar said she was concerned about the future of women and children in Afghanistan.

“Before, when America was in Afghanistan, there was hope in that we were fighting the Taliban and that they could finally be defeated after 20 years,” Ms. Anwar said. “But by the Biden administration completely stepping out, it’s giving them no hope anymore.”

A first-generation Afghan American, Ms. Anwar said she had always dreamed of visiting her family’s home country. She now doubts that she will be able to go.

“It just seems like we’re never going to get peace,” Ms. Anwar said.

Taliban fighters greeting bystanders as they drive through Kabul in an Afghan Police vehicle on Sunday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As the U.S. raced to evacuate personnel from its embassy in Kabul, human and refugee rights groups sharply criticized the Biden administration for not moving faster to relocate America’s Afghan allies from a country where they are at risk of lethal Taliban reprisals.

“The Biden administration has taken too long to create a process that ensures safety for Afghans who served with American military and civil society actors,” Jennifer Quigley, senior director for government affairs at Human Rights First, said in a statement. “As Afghanistan’s military and political leaders abandon their posts, the United States risks abandoning allies who stood with us, who translated for and protected our troops.”

“Unless there is a swift and meaningful effort to evacuate the thousands of allies and their families to the United States or a U.S. territory, we will have broken our promise to leave no one behind,” she added.

Congress this year created the Special Immigrant Visa program to allow Afghans who worked with the Americans over the past 20 years to relocate to the United States. The State Department has given eligibility to tens of thousands of people and their families, and some have been flown out of Afghanistan.

But the rate of evacuation has not matched the speed of the Afghan government collapse. “If evacuation flights continue at their current pace, it would take until March 2023 to evacuate all the eligible Afghans out of the country,” Ms. Quigley said.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that Afghans who are not eligible for the program — including ones who worked for U.S.-based media organizations and nongovernmental organizations — could apply for high-priority refugee status.

But U.S. officials said those Afghans, who may number in the tens of thousands, must first leave the country under their own auspices merely to begin an application process that can take more than a year. With the Taliban in control of cities, highways and border crossings, it may now be too late for many of them to leave.

Taliban fighters roared into the city on motorbikes and in police pickup trucks.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The fall of Kabul follows days in which one urban center after another fell to the insurgents with astonishing speed, often with little or no resistance, leaving the government in control of nothing but fast-shrinking pockets of the country.

The insurgents took Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north, late on Saturday, only an hour after breaking through the front lines at the city’s edge. Soon after, government security forces and militias — including those led by the warlords Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor — fled, effectively handing control to the insurgents.

On Sunday morning, the Taliban seized the eastern city of Jalalabad. In taking that provincial capital and surrounding areas, the insurgents gained control of the Torkham border crossing, a major trade and transit route between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They took over Bagram Air Base, which had been the hub of U.S. military power in the country until the Americans handed control of it back to Afghan forces six weeks earlier.

Later on Sunday, Taliban fighters began taking up positions in Kabul, the capital — the last major city that had been under government control — as government forces melted away and the president fled the country.

The Taliban offensive, which started in May when the United States began withdrawing troops, gathered speed over the past week. In city after city, the militants took down Afghan government flags and hoisted their own white banners.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken acknowledged on Sunday that the offensive had moved faster than U.S. officials had expected.

Despite two decades of war with American-led forces, the Taliban have survived and thrived, without giving up their vision of creating a state governed by a stringent Islamic code.

After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, movie theaters were closed, the Kabul television station was shut down and the playing of all music was banned. Schools were closed to girls.

Despite many Afghans’ memories of years under Taliban rule before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the insurgents have taken control of much of the country in recent days with only minimal resistance.

Their rapid successes have exposed the weakness of an Afghan military that the United States spent more than $83 billion to support over the past two decades. As the insurgents’ campaign has accelerated, soldiers and police officers have abandoned the security forces in ever greater numbers, with the cause for which they risked their lives appearing increasingly to be lost.

The speed of the Taliban’s advance has thrown exit planning into disarray. While many analysts had believed that the Afghan military could be overrun after international forces withdrew, they thought it would happen over months and years.

President Biden has accelerated the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan to help get American citizens out. He made it clear that he would not reverse his decision to withdraw all combat forces.

“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats,” Mr. Biden said on Saturday afternoon. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”

With their seizure of Jalalabad on Sunday, and its entry into Kabul, the Taliban effectively took control of Afghanistan. Planes departing the airport in Kabul, the capital, were filled with people fleeing the city.

Taliban members at the entrance to the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on Sunday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday morning after the Taliban appeared to take control of Afghanistan, where the U.N. has maintained an extensive aid operation since the early days of the American-led occupation two decades ago.

Secretary General António Guterres, who had repeatedly condemned attacks on Afghan civilians and implored the Taliban and government representatives to negotiate a peaceful settlement, was expected to speak at the emergency meeting. On Friday, as it was becoming increasingly clear that the Afghan government was collapsing as Taliban fighters walked into city after city, Mr. Guterres said the country was “spinning out of control.”

It remains unclear how the Taliban would be regarded by the United Nations should the militant movement declare itself the legitimate power in Afghanistan. Many countries in the 193-member organization have condemned the Taliban’s brutality and would most likely not recognize such a declaration.

The United Nations employs roughly 3,000 employees who are Afghan and about 720 international staff members in Afghanistan, but roughly half of the international staff have been working outside the country since the pandemic started last year.

U.N. officials have repeatedly said there were no plans to evacuate any staff members from the country. But Mr. Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters last week that the organization was evaluating the security situation “hour by hour.”

The Taliban have pledged not to interfere in United Nations aid operations. But on July 30, a U.N. office in the western city of Herat was attacked by the Taliban, and a local security official guarding the office was killed.

The main U.N. mission, based in Kabul, is known as the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or Unama, and was established in 2002 to help create a government following the American-led invasion.

Taliban fighters in Kunduz last week.
Credit…Abdullah Sahil/Associated Press

It was his first day as the Taliban-appointed mayor of Kunduz, and Gul Mohammad Elias was on a charm offensive.

Last Sunday, the insurgents seized control of the city in northern Afghanistan, which was in shambles after weeks of fighting. Power lines were down. The water supply, powered by generators, did not reach most residents. Trash and rubble littered the streets.

The civil servants who could fix those problems were hiding at home, terrified of the Taliban. So the insurgent-commander-turned-mayor summoned some to his new office, to persuade them to return to work.

But day by day, as municipal offices stayed mostly empty, Mr. Elias grew more frustrated — and his rhetoric grew harsher.

Taliban fighters began going door to door, searching for absentee city workers. Hundreds of armed men set up checkpoints across the city. At the entrance to the regional hospital, a new notice appeared on the wall: Employees must return to work or face punishment from the Taliban.

The experience of those in Kunduz offers a glimpse of how the Taliban may govern, and what may be in store for the rest of the country.

In just days, the insurgents, frustrated by their failed efforts to cajole civil servants back to work, began instilling terror, according to residents reached by telephone.

“I am afraid, because I do not know what will happen and what they will do,” said one, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by the Taliban. “We have to smile at them because we are scared, but deeply we are unhappy.”

Nearly every shop in Kunduz was closed. The shopkeepers, fearing their stores would be looted by Taliban fighters, had taken their goods home. Every afternoon the streets emptied of residents, who feared airstrikes as government planes buzzed in the sky. And about 500 Taliban fighters were stationed around the city, manning checkpoints on nearly every street corner.

At the regional hospital, armed Taliban were keeping track of attendance. Out of fear, the health worker said, female staff wore sky-blue burqas as they assisted in surgeries and tended to wounds from airstrikes, which still splintered the city each afternoon.

American and Afghan soldiers attended a handover ceremony at a military camp in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in May.
Credit…Afghan Ministry of Defense, via Associated Press

With the Taliban on the verge of regaining power in Afghanistan, President Biden has defended his decision to leave the country after two decades of U.S. military involvement.

In a statement on Saturday, Mr. Biden said that the United States had invested nearly $1 trillion in Afghanistan over the past 20 years and had trained and equipped more than 300,000 Afghan security forces, including maintaining the Asian country’s air force.

“One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Mr. Biden said. “And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”

Mr. Biden’s statement came hours after the Taliban seized Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, but before the group captured the eastern city of Jalalabad on Sunday, The group entered Kabul, the capital, on Sunday as President Ashraf Ghani fled.

Mr. Biden partly blamed President Donald J. Trump for the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan, saying that the deal made with the Taliban in 2020 had set a deadline of May 1 this year for the withdrawal of American forces and left the group “in the strongest position militarily since 2001.”

“I faced a choice — follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict,” Mr. Biden said.

This year, a study group appointed by Congress urged the Biden administration to abandon the May 1 deadline and slow the withdrawal of American troops, saying that a strict adherence to the timeline could lead Afghanistan into civil war. Pentagon officials made similar entreaties, but Mr. Biden maintained his long-held position that it was time for Afghanistan to fend for itself.

Since international troops began withdrawing in May, the Taliban have pursued their military takeover far more swiftly than U.S. intelligence agencies had anticipated. On Saturday, Mr. Biden accelerated the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to help ensure the safe evacuation from Kabul of U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for the American government.

On Sunday, a decision was made to send another 1,000, temporarily bringing to 6,000 the number of American troops in the country.

In his statement, Mr. Biden warned the Taliban that “any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan, that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong U.S. military response.”

Displaced Afghan women pleading for help from a police officer in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last month.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

A high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, worries that she now will not be allowed to graduate.

The girl, Wahida Sadeqi, 17, like many Afghan civilians in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal and ahead of a Taliban victory, keeps asking the same question: What will happen to me?

The American withdrawal, which effectively ends the longest war on foreign soil in United States history, is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.

“I am so worried about my future. It seems so murky. If the Taliban take over, I lose my identity,” said Ms. Sadeqi, an 11th grader at Pardis High School in Kabul. “It is about my existence. It is not about their withdrawal. I was born in 2004, and I have no idea what the Taliban did to women, but I know women were banned from everything.”

Uncertainty hangs over virtually every facet of life in Afghanistan. It is unclear what the future holds and whether the fighting will ever stop. For two decades, American leaders have pledged peace, prosperity, democracy, the end of terrorism and rights for women.

Few of those promises have materialized in vast areas of Afghanistan, but now even in the cities where real progress occurred, there is fear that everything will be lost when the Americans leave.

The Taliban, the extremist group that once controlled most of the country and continues to fight the government, insist that the elected president step down. Militias are increasing in prominence and power, and there is talk of a lengthy civil war.

Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, who sought refuge in Pakistan, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.

The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.

Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it barred women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes — though this was already custom for many women in rural parts of the country.

“It is too early to comment on the subject. We need to know much more,” Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator who is involved in the continuing peace talks with the Taliban, said in April. “One thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country — no one can deny them their rights or status.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken this month at the State Department.
Credit…Pool photo by Brendan Smialowski

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Sunday that the defeat of Afghan security forces that has led to the Taliban’s takeover “happened more quickly than we anticipated,” although he maintained the Biden administration’s position that keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan was not in American interests.

“This is heart-wrenching stuff,” said Mr. Blinken, who looked shaken, in an interview on CNN after a night that saw members of the Taliban enter the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the shuttering of the U.S. Embassy as the last remaining American diplomats in Afghanistan were moved to a facility at the city’s airport for better protection.

Mr. Blinken stopped short of saying that all American diplomats would return to the United States, repeating an intent to maintain a small core of officials in Kabul.

But he forcefully defended the administration’s decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, saying it could have been vulnerable to Taliban attacks had the United States reneged on an agreement brokered under President Donald J. Trump for all foreign forces to leave the country.

“We would have been back at war with the Taliban,” Mr. Blinken said, calling that “something the American people simply can’t support — that is the reality.”

He said it was not in American interests to devote more time, money and, potentially, casualties, to Afghanistan at a time that the United States was also facing long-term strategic challenges from China and Russia. But, Mr. Blinken said, American forces will remain in the region to confront any terrorist threat against the United States at home that might arise from Afghanistan.

He also appeared to demand more conditions for the prospect of recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government or establishing a formal diplomatic relationship with them.

Earlier, the Biden administration had said the Taliban, in order to acquire international financial support, must never allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a haven, must not take Kabul by force and must not attack Americans.

On Sunday, Mr. Blinken said the Taliban must also uphold basic rights of citizens, particularly women who gained new freedoms to go to work and school after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

There will be no recognition of a Taliban government “if they’re not sustaining the basic rights of the Afghan people, and if they revert to supporting or harboring terrorists who might strike us,” the secretary of state said.

Mr. Blinken’s comments were swiftly criticized by the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, who said the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan “is going to be a stain on this president and his presidency.”

“They totally blew this one,” Mr. McCaul said. “They completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban.”

“I hate to say this: I hope we don’t have to go back there,” he said. “But it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time.”

Lights in the windows of the United States embassy in Kabul on Sunday night.
Credit…Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

More than a hundred journalists employed by the American government’s own radio stations remain in Afghanistan as the Taliban take power, U.S. officials and Afghan journalists said Sunday.

“Journalists are being left behind,” said Rateb Noori, the Kabul bureau news manager of Radio Azadi, in a telephone interview from Kabul on Sunday.

The station, a branch of the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty services, formerly called Radio Free Afghanistan, broadcast through the day Sunday, including airing an interview with a Taliban spokesman. Its sister station, Voice of America, reported on Sunday that one of its reporters “was in the passport office when everyone was told to leave immediately and go home.”

The Afghans working for the U.S. government broadcasters in Kabul and around the country have long been targets of the insurgents, who killed a journalist with Radio Free Afghanistan in a targeted bombing in November. They are among the most exposed of hundreds of Afghans who have worked with American news organizations since the arrival of U.S. troops in 2001, and media organizations have been scrambling to help local employees evacuate. The U.S. government made journalists eligible for a visa program that could allow them to leave the country. They have yet to be evacuated and the window to do so is closing quickly.

The acting interim chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the broadcasters, said in an email to staff Sunday that the agency is “doing everything in our power to protect” journalists and “will not back down in our mission to inform, engage, and connect Afghans in support of freedom and democracy.”

The president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jamie Fly, said in a text message that the service is “doing everything possible to make sure they can safely continue their work.”

Mr. Noori, who was awake late on Sunday because he was worried about looters at his home, said there was no protection and little certainty — including whether the stations will continue to broadcast Monday.

“Everybody is locked down in their homes, and no one knows what happens tomorrow,” he said.

Afghan journalists have little to do but rely on early Taliban promises that they will not attack members of the news media.

“Having experience last time of their role in Afghanistan, I think they cannot keep their promises — they cannot control their people,” he said. “I’m just hoping that we can survive for a while, and then let’s see if we have a way out to any neighboring country,” Mr. Noori said.

Mujeeb Angaar, who worked for Radio Free Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013 before fleeing the country, said in a telephone interview from his home in Canada that he was told by the Taliban at the time that he “should be killed, because you work for Jews, you work for the CIA.”

The American-backed services “will be the first target,” he said.

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Germany Will Offer Vaccine Booster Shots Starting in September

BERLIN — As concerns grow over the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, Germany on Monday became the biggest Western country yet to announce that it will offer vaccine booster shots to a wide range of people considered potentially vulnerable, adding to growing momentum in rich nations to give additional shots to fully vaccinated people.

The move by Germany came even as a top European Union official criticized the bloc as falling far short of its promises to donate vaccine doses to Africa and Latin America. And with a limited global vaccine supply, health experts say the top priorities should be distributing doses to poor countries that lag far behind in inoculations, and persuading vaccine-resistant people in wealthy countries to get their first shots.

There is also still no consensus among scientists on the need for booster shots, but as fears rise of more pandemic waves and more costly lockdowns, a growing number of countries are preparing to give their people booster doses — or have already started.

Starting in September, Germany, Europe’s largest economy, wants to administer a booster of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine to older people, residents of care homes, and people with compromised immune systems — and also to anyone who was already fully vaccinated with the two-dose AstraZeneca or single-dose Johnson & Johnson shots, which clinical trials have shown are not as highly protective.

an early leader in vaccination, began administering boosters to people 60 and older last week. A month ago, Russia made additional shots available to anyone six months after inoculation, and on Sunday, Hungary began offering them four months post-vaccination.

France is offering them only to those with weak immune systems, and plans to give them this fall to those who were the first to be vaccinated early this year — mostly people over 75 and those with serious health problems.

government advisers recommended in late June that everyone over 50 should be eligible but said the priority should be getting the shots to people over 70, health workers, nursing home residents, and younger adults with immune problems or other serious vulnerabilities.

increasingly think that vulnerable populations may need additional shots even as research continues into how long the vaccines remain effective. Some people have already obtained boosters simply by not revealing previous vaccination.

But as governments, terrified of another surge in the virus, increasingly lean toward boosters, the need for them remains unclear.

Studies have indicated that immunity resulting from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines is long-lasting, and researchers are still working to interpret recent Israeli data suggesting a decline in efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine months after inoculation.

although the vaccine remains powerfully effective against severe disease and death.

Experts were divided on the utility of booster shots so soon after vaccination began. Experience with other diseases indicates that older people and those with weak immune systems might benefit, but there is little hard evidence with the coronavirus.

“The problem here is, we’re just sort of going on immunological priors, rather than really great data to justify things one way or the other,” said Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona. “I totally understand the decision, but I think we have to acknowledge that there’s a wide range of uncertainty on what it’s going to do.”

Booster doses may help some people with weak immune systems, but others may show little improvement even after a third dose, and still others may not need a booster at all, scientists say.

While dozens of mostly wealthy countries, including the United States and most of Europe, have administered more than 100 doses per 100 people, many other nations remain below five per 100 — primarily in Africa, where cases have soared as the Delta variant spreads.

Doctors Without Borders said recently that it would be “unconscionable” to give booster doses in richer nations before people in poorer ones get their first doses.

“Wealthy governments shouldn’t be prioritizing giving third doses when much of the developing world hasn’t even yet had the chance to get their first Covid-19 shots,” Kate Elder, the senior vaccines policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign, said in a statement.

a so-called vector vaccine, like AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson.

It is the latest sign that governments are encouraging their citizens to mix and match vaccines in the hope of provoking a more protective immune response against Covid-19. Early results from a British vaccine study showed that volunteers produced high levels of antibodies and immune cells after getting one dose each of the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca-Oxford shots.

The new German guidelines announced Monday also went a step further in encouraging parents to vaccinate children between 12 and 17, announcing that doctors and vaccination centers across the country would make the jab available to them before the start of the new school year.

Health ministers stopped short of making a formal recommendation for vaccinating children, but the move made plain their impatience with Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccinations, which has so far refrained from guiding parents one way or the other, pending more data becoming available.

Vaccinating children “is one building block to allow a safe start into the new school year after the summer vacation,” Mr. Holetschek said.

Apoorva Mandavilli contributed reporting from New York, Benjamin Mueller from London, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Gaia Pianigiani from Rome, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, Raphael Minder from Madrid and Thomas Erdbrink from Amsterdam.

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How China Transformed Into a Prime Cyber Threat to the U.S.

Nearly a decade ago, the United States began naming and shaming China for an onslaught of online espionage, the bulk of it conducted using low-level phishing emails against American companies for intellectual property theft.

On Monday, the United States again accused China of cyberattacks. But these attacks were highly aggressive, and they reveal that China has transformed into a far more sophisticated and mature digital adversary than the one that flummoxed U.S. officials a decade ago.

The Biden administration’s indictment for the cyberattacks, along with interviews with dozens of current and former American officials, shows that China has reorganized its hacking operations in the intervening years. While it once conducted relatively unsophisticated hacks of foreign companies, think tanks and government agencies, China is now perpetrating stealthy, decentralized digital assaults of American companies and interests around the world.

Hacks that were conducted via sloppily worded spearphishing emails by units of the People’s Liberation Army are now carried out by an elite satellite network of contractors at front companies and universities that work at the direction of China’s Ministry of State Security, according to U.S. officials and the indictment.

like Microsoft’s Exchange email service and Pulse VPN security devices, which are harder to defend against and allow China’s hackers to operate undetected for longer periods.

“What we’ve seen over the past two or three years is an upleveling” by China, said George Kurtz, the chief executive of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “They operate more like a professional intelligence service than the smash-and-grab operators we saw in the past.”

China has long been one of the biggest digital threats to the United States. In a 2009 classified National Intelligence Estimate, a document that represents the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, China and Russia topped the list of America’s online adversaries. But China was deemed the more immediate threat because of the volume of its industrial trade theft.

But that threat is even more troubling now because of China’s revamping of its hacking operations. Furthermore, the Biden administration has turned cyberattacks — including ransomware attacks — into a major diplomatic front with superpowers like Russia, and U.S. relations with China have steadily deteriorated over issues including trade and tech supremacy.

China’s prominence in hacking first came to the fore in 2010 with attacks on Google and RSA, the security company, and again in 2013 with a hack of The New York Times.

breach of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. In that attack, Chinese hackers made off with sensitive personal information, including more than 20 million fingerprints, for Americans who had been granted a security clearance.

White House officials soon struck a deal that China would cease its hacking of American companies and interests for its industrial benefit. For 18 months during the Obama administration, security researchers and intelligence officials observed a notable drop in Chinese hacking.

After President Donald J. Trump took office and accelerated trade conflicts and other tensions with China, the hacking resumed. By 2018, U.S. intelligence officials had noted a shift: People’s Liberation Army hackers had stood down and been replaced by operatives working at the behest of the Ministry of State Security, which handles China’s intelligence, security and secret police.

Hacks of intellectual property, that benefited China’s economic plans, originated not from the P.L.A. but from a looser network of front companies and contractors, including engineers who worked for some of the country’s leading technology companies, according to intelligence officials and researchers.

It was unclear how exactly China worked with these loosely affiliated hackers. Some cybersecurity experts speculated that the engineers were paid cash to moonlight for the state, while others said those in the network had no choice but to do whatever the state asked. In 2013, a classified U.S. National Security Agency memo said, “The exact affiliation with Chinese government entities is not known, but their activities indicate a probable intelligence requirement feed from China’s Ministry of State Security.”

announced a new policy requiring Chinese security researchers to notify the state within two days when they found security holes, such as the “zero-days” that the country relied on in the breach of Microsoft Exchange systems.

arrested its founder. Two years later, Chinese police announced that they would start enforcing laws banning the “unauthorized disclosure” of vulnerabilities. That same year, Chinese hackers, who were a regular presence at big Western hacking conventions, stopped showing up, on state orders.

“If they continue to maintain this level of access, with the control that they have, their intelligence community is going to benefit,” Mr. Kurtz said of China. “It’s an arms race in cyber.”

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