As pressure mounted on the Biden administration to do more to evacuate thousands of Afghan allies fearing for their lives, the Taliban on Tuesday sought to present themselves to the world as a responsible steward of Afghanistan.
But with both the Biden administration and the Taliban promising to offer protection, for millions of Afghans the future promised only more uncertainty. While the U.S. military on Tuesday restored order within Kabul’s international airport, it was unclear whether Afghans could make it there.
Despite assurances of safe passage, the Taliban are not only known to operate with brutality, but also have a dismal history of managing a vast nation largely dependent on foreign aid.
The group’s leaders took to Twitter, appeared on international cable networks, planned a news conference to provide assurances that they would not engage in systemic retribution and offered vague reassurances to women. Yet there were ominous signs that those promises did not match the situation on the ground.
Taliban fighters spread out across the streets of Kabul, the capital, riding motorbikes and driving police vehicles and Humvees that had been seized from government security forces. Armed fighters occupied Parliament, some visited the homes of government officials, confiscating possessions and vehicles, while others made a show of directing traffic
Fruit sellers were again on the streets and some shops were open. But special forces commandos are among those in hiding, many bitter over having been told not to fight as power brokers sought a peaceful handover.
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said on Monday that his organization was “receiving chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights” throughout the country. “I am particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan,” he said at an emergency meeting of the Security Council.
In some areas of Afghanistan, women have been told not to leave home without being accompanied by a male relative, and girls’ schools have been closed.
The Afghan government’s collapse has left the Taliban in control of not only security, but also basic services in a country already facing a drought that has left a third of its 38 million people in danger of running out of food.
While there have been no confirmed reports of widespread reprisal killings, many people have sheltered in their homes, fearful after watching the insurgents throw open the doors to the nation’s prisons and seize arms depots in their sweep across the nation.
Hoping to get people back to essential jobs, the Taliban issued a “general amnesty” on Tuesday for all government officials, saying that they could return to work with “full confidence.”
But the statement was opaque, and memories of Taliban rule are deeply ingrained.
In 1996, the group began their conquest of Kabul by castrating, shooting and eventually hanging Afghanistan’s last Communist president, Najibullah.
They became known for brutality, carrying out executions by stoning in a soccer stadium and compelling men to pray five times a day under the threat of the lash. Television, videos and music were banned.
Women in particular suffered gravely, with girls’ education banned and women largely excluded from public life. There were only an estimated 900,000 students in 2001, and none of them were girls, according to USAID. Two decades later, before the Taliban’s recent takeover, that number had increased to 9.5 million students in the country, 39 percent of whom are girls.
Still, one of Afghanistan’s major media outlets, ToloNews, featured female anchors onscreen on Tuesday for the first time since the Taliban takeover.
In some places under Taliban control for the past week, they have resorted to the threat of terror to compel civil servants back to work.
Even before the Taliban issued any official edicts, store owners were busy painting over images of women, hotels stopped playing music, and many Afghans are hiding in their homes, afraid of what they may find on the street.
And tens of thousands were still struggling to find a way to escape.
After panic and chaos at Kabul’s international airport led to the halting of flights, the U.S. military appeared to have restored a semblance of order on Tuesday. But the Taliban seemed to be controlling access to the airport and had established checkpoints throughout the city.
As Afghan women remained cloistered at home in Kabul, fearful for their lives and their futures, a starkly different image played out on Tuesday on Tolo News, an Afghan television station: a female presenter interviewing a Taliban official.
Sitting several feet away from Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a member of the Taliban’s media team, the host, Beheshta Arghand, asked him about the situation in Kabul and the Taliban’s conducting house-to-house searches in the Afghan capital.
“The entire world now recognizes that the Taliban are the real rulers of the country,” he said, adding: “I am still astonished that people are afraid of Taliban.”
The interview, remarkable given the Taliban’s history of subjugating women, was part of a broader effort by the group since taking power to present a more moderate face to the world.
They are encouraging workers back to their jobs — and have even encouraged women to return to work and to take part in the government.
“The Islamic Emirate doesn’t want women to be victims,” Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s commission on culture, said in a statement, using the group’s name for Afghanistan. “They should be in the government structure, according to Shariah law.”
It was unclear what it would mean for women to have roles in public life “under Shariah law,” given the Taliban’s past harsh interpretation of those laws.
Worried about running afoul of local Taliban officials, Kabul residents have been tearing down advertisements showing women without head scarves in recent days.
That made the work of Tolo’s female journalists, including a reporter out on the street, all the more notable.
Matthieu Aikins, a journalist who has reported widely on Afghanistan, described the interview as “remarkable, historic, heartening,” although he pointed out that during recent peace talks in Doha, the Taliban had given access to female journalists from Afghanistan and other countries.
Afghanistan observers said that while it is not unheard-of for the Taliban to grant interviews with female journalists, including international correspondents from CNN and other outlets, they are rare inside the country.
The Taliban leadership appears to be carefully tending to the group’s public image, even as its members continue to preach a policy of exclusion that deprives women of rights and education inside the country.
The notion that the Taliban will suddenly change their ways has been greeted with deep skepticism.
“Please spare a thought for the people women and girls of Afghanistan,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “A tragedy unfolds in front of our eyes.”
When the Taliban governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school.
After the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban, women’s rights became a rallying cry. Over two decades, the United States invested more than $780 million to promote women’s rights. Girls and women have joined the military and police forces, held political office, and competed in the Olympics and on robotics teams — things that once seemed unimaginable.
Now, fears are growing that all those hard-won rights will disappear.
Tolo News has been an independent force in the Afghanistan news media landscape, showing soap operas and reality shows that run counter to the Taliban’s conservative ethos.
After their recent capture of Kabul, the Taliban entered Tolo’s news compound, collecting all state-issued weapons, and offering to help secure the compound.
Saad Mohseni, the chief executive of Moby Media Group, which oversees Tolo News, told the BBC that the Taliban had been professional and polite. But he said he suspected that his station’s content, especially entertainment, would face eventual censorship.
“The Taliban are scrambling to take control,” he said.
A day after Afghans swarmed Kabul’s main international airport in the desperate hope of fleeing their country, military flights resumed evacuating foreign nationals on Tuesday morning as thousands more U.S. troops arrived to oversee a frantic escape from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
With the runways cleared of civilians, U.S. Marines and other foreign soldiers stood guard as evacuation flights began taking off in the ghostly predawn hours from Hamid Karzai International Airport, the last exit point from a country over which the Taliban now hold near-total control.
Yet as the American military seized air traffic control to prioritize military flights evacuating Western citizens — and a limited number of Afghans who work for foreign missions — most Afghan civilians were left with little immediate hope of escaping the return of an Islamist militant group that once ruled Afghanistan with terror and brutality.
The U.S. Embassy said that it was helping American citizens leave Afghanistan, but urged people to stay away from the airport. “Please do NOT come to the airport until you are notified by the Embassy,” it said on Twitter.
Taliban fighters had swept into Kabul, the capital, on Sunday, capping a stunning march across Afghanistan in the closing moments of the United States’ 20-year military mission in the country. Thousands of Afghans flocked to Kabul’s airport, and on Monday they rushed the boarding gates, mobbed the runways, clambered atop the wings of jets and even tried to cling to the fuselage of departing U.S. military planes.
At least half a dozen Afghans were killed in the chaos, some falling from the skies as they lost their grasp, and at least two shot by American soldiers trying to contain the surging crowds.
The images evoked America’s frantic departure from Vietnam, encapsulating Afghanistan’s breathtaking collapse in the wake of American abandonment.
The contingent of 2,500 U.S. Marines guarding the airport halted flights for several hours on Monday. By Tuesday morning, another 3,000 Marines were expected to be there to aid in the evacuation effort, said John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is also sending an additional 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne to Kabul, instead of to Kuwait, to help secure the area.
President George W. Bush, who ordered the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power, said this week that he felt “deep sadness” at the group’s takeover of Afghanistan and defended his decision to launch what would become America’s longest war.
“Our hearts are heavy for both the Afghan people who have suffered so much and for the Americans and NATO allies who have sacrificed so much,” the former president and his wife, Laura Bush, wrote in a letter released on Monday.
Mr. Bush was in his first year in office, with little experience in foreign affairs, when the Sept. 11 attacks prompted him to deploy troops to Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban government that had sheltered the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
But then Mr. Bush turned his focus to invading Iraq, the costly military campaign that would come to define his presidency, leaving the Afghanistan mission to drag on with ill-defined goals and little oversight.
In his letter, Mr. Bush addressed U.S. troops who had served in Afghanistan, including thousands who did multiple tours, arguing that he had not sent them to war in vain.
“You took out a brutal enemy and denied Al Qaeda a safe haven while building schools, sending supplies and providing medical care,” he said. “You kept America safe from further terror attacks, provided two decades of security and opportunity for millions and made America proud.”
Many of the gains ushered in by the two-decade U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan — more opportunities for women, more girls enrolled in school, a freer news media environment — could be at risk under the Taliban.
The hard-line Islamist group banned popular music and carried out public executions when it ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, and as an insurgent movement it was known for suicide bombings that killed thousands of civilians and members of ethnic and religious minorities.
Mr. Bush called on the Biden administration to take in more Afghan refugees and speed the process of evacuating Afghans and U.S. citizens threatened by the Taliban. He urged the U.S. government to “cut the red tape.”
“We have the responsibility and the resources to secure safe passage for them now, without bureaucratic delay,” he said.
Western technocrat. Would-be populist. Wartime president. Ashraf Ghani tried to inhabit many roles during his years as Afghanistan’s president.
But after fleeing the Taliban’s advance into Kabul this weekend, Mr. Ghani — wherever he is — is stepping into a far less welcome role: that of a failed leader whose hasty escape from Kabul scuttled negotiations to ensure a smooth transition of power to the Taliban and left his own people to deal with the deadly chaos and frightening uncertainty under the country’s once and future rulers.
It remains unclear where Mr. Ghani is and where he will end up living. Close aides could not be reached by telephone, and some reports suggested that he had gone to neighboring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan or perhaps Oman. There was talk that Saudi Arabia had agreed to give him asylum, and rumors that he had been accompanied by as many as 200 aides, ministers and members of Parliament.
There were also reports that Mr. Ghani had fled with piles of cash, and questions about whether the United States had played any role in his departure.
It was an ignominious turn for Mr. Ghani, a World Bank-trained technocrat who holds a doctorate from Columbia University and, as he often reminds people, wrote a book titled “Fixing Failed States.”
Instead of fixing Afghanistan during his nearly seven years in power, Mr. Ghani fled much the way he governed: isolated from all but a handful of advisers who are said to have departed with him.
The fallout was swift as what semblance of civil government that was left in Kabul melted away and thousands of Afghans stormed through Kabul’s international airport — the city’s sole connection to the outside world — on Monday, desperate to find a way out. Unlike Mr. Ghani, most of them had no chance of getting out, and several people died in the chaos.
Mr. Ghani, 72, defended his decision to bolt in a social media post late on Sunday, writing, “If I had stayed, countless of my countrymen would be martyred and Kabul would face destruction.”
Others condemned his flight as a desperate act of self-preservation by a man whose failures paved the way for the Taliban’s return nearly 20 years to the month after the American-led invasion that led to their ouster following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“He will be known as the Benedict Arnold of Afghanistan,” said Saad Mohseni, who owns Tolo TV, one of Afghanistan’s most popular television stations. “People will be spitting on his grave for another 100 years.”
Mr. Mohseni was part of a last-ditch effort to save Kabul from a violent and bloody takeover by the Taliban, working with former President Hamid Karzai and others to negotiate an interim arrangement that would give the Taliban a week or two to take the reins of Afghanistan’s government.
The effort collapsed once word got out that Mr. Ghani had fled, whereupon the Taliban began moving into Kabul in force. Some were even pictured sitting at the same desk from which Mr. Ghani had only days earlier tried to rally his faltering military to resist the Taliban.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is making a flurry of calls to his overseas counterparts, an apparent effort to defend the U.S. military withdrawal that has sent Afghanistan sliding back into chaos.
Mr. Blinken spoke to foreign ministers from nations including Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey on Monday amid a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan that threatens to undo 20 years of American engagement in the country and could embolden the United States’ regional rivals.
The State Department offered few details of the call between Mr. Blinken and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, other than to say that the two had discussed security in Afghanistan and their respective efforts to get their citizens to safety.
But the Chinese government took the opportunity to criticize the United States. Its foreign ministry said in a statement that Mr. Yi had told Mr. Blinken that the hasty U.S. withdrawal had “a serious negative impact” in Afghanistan. Mr. Yi also reiterated a standard Chinese government talking point, saying that applying foreign models to countries with different histories and cultural conditions doesn’t work, according to the statement.
In China, the situation in Afghanistan has been a source of concern about instability in the region. China shares a short, remote border with Afghanistan, which under the Taliban served as a haven for Uyghur extremists from Xinjiang, the far western Chinese region.
Some cheered the fall of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, seeing a sign of American weakness. In a caustic editorial published on Monday, The Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the ruling Communist Party, said that the Taliban’s breakneck ascent had severely undermined American credibility.
It suggested that Washington’s abandonment of Kabul should be a warning sign for Taiwan, the democratic island that is supported by the United States and that China considers a rogue territory.
The State Department said Mr. Blinken had also spoken with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov. Tass, the Russian state news agency, reported that the two had discussed the security situation in Afghanistan, the humanitarian challenges in the country and Moscow’s desire for law and order to prevail.
For some critics of the U.S. withdrawal, the collapse of Afghanistan’s democratically elected government is particularly concerning as Beijing and Moscow seek to exert their influence in the world.
In a nationwide address on Monday, President Biden argued that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was complete and that nation-building had not been the initial goal.
“Our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely,” he said.
The State Department said Mr. Blinken had also spoken with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi of Pakistan, which for decades has served as a sanctuary for the Taliban.
While some former military officials in Pakistan have applauded the Taliban’s victory, a collapse in Afghanistan carries risks for Pakistan, including a possible influx of refugees. It could also provide a lift to jihadist movements that target Pakistan’s government.
WASHINGTON — President Biden offered a defiant defense on Monday of his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, returning to the White House from a weekend at Camp David amid chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport after the collapse of the Afghanistan government to the Taliban.
Speaking to the American people from the ornate East Room, Mr. Biden stood by his decision to end the longest war in United States history and rejected criticism from allies and adversaries about the events that left hundreds of Afghans desperately running after military planes as they ferried people to safety out of the country.
“The choice I had to make as your president was either to follow through on the agreement to draw down our forces,” Mr. Biden said, “or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat and lurching into the third decade of conflict.”
Mr. Biden, who immediately left the White House to return to Camp David, acknowledged the truth told by dramatic images over the previous 72 hours: a frantic scramble to evacuate the American Embassy in Kabul in the face of advancing Taliban fighters, which has drawn grim comparisons to the country’s retreat from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
The president conceded that the result of his decision to pull out troops had become “hard and messy,” but he rejected the analogy, insisting that the administration had planned for the possibility of a rapid Taliban takeover.
He also expressed pride that diplomats and other Americans had been evacuated to relative safety at Kabul’s airport, which was in the process of being secured by several thousand American troops.
He blamed the fall of the Afghan government on the failure of the country’s military and political leaders to stand up for themselves.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said, accusing the military of laying down their arms after two decades of U.S. training and hundreds of billions of dollars in equipment and resources. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
Mr. Biden vowed again to rescue thousands of Afghans who helped Americans during the two-decade conflict, but the fate of many who remained in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan was uncertain.
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — The U.S.-supplied Afghan Air Force took to the skies for a final flight overnight Sunday to Monday — not to attack the Taliban, as it had so many times before, but to save some of its planes and pilots from capture as the insurgents took control of Afghanistan.
At least six military aircraft left the country in a flight for safety in former Soviet states to the north. Five landed in Tajikistan, the Tajik authorities said. One plane was shot down in Uzbekistan, although its two pilots were reported to have parachuted and survived.
The departure of some of the Afghan Air Force’s planes, once the jewels of the American aid program to the Afghan military, kept them and their airmen out of Taliban hands.
It also added to the chaos in the skies in and around Afghanistan. Dozens of passenger planes that have taken off from Hamid Karzai International Airport also flew to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, neighboring countries with strong cultural ties to Afghanistan. A total of 46 airliners had departed by Monday morning, carrying asylum seekers, many of whom were employees of the airport, Tolo News, an Afghan news agency, reported.
A spokesman for the Uzbek military confirmed that it had shot down an airplane that traveled without permission into the country’s airspace. It did not specify the type of plane, but pictures of the wreckage suggested that it was a Super Tucano, a turboprop light attack aircraft made by the Brazilian company Embraer and provided by the United States to Afghanistan, according to Paul Hayes, director of Ascend, a U.K.-based aviation safety consultancy.
The Uzbek news media posted videos showing a pilot in a green flight suit, lying on the ground and receiving medical care.
In Tajikistan, the Ministry of Emergency Situations said three Afghan military airplanes and two military helicopters carrying 143 soldiers and airmen had been allowed to land after transmitting distress signals.
“Tajikistan received an SOS signal, and after this in accordance with international obligations the country decided to allow landings,” a ministry spokesman said, according to Interfax.
It was unclear what would happen to the aircraft now in Tajikistan. Afghan pilots had been targets of particular hatred by the Taliban and risked assassination.
The shoot-down in Uzbekistan and the Tajik authorities’ emphasis on their neutrality in allowing landings reflected the hard response that Central Asian nations, worried about antagonizing the Taliban, have had to fleeing Afghan soldiers.
Uzbekistan last week allowed 84 soldiers to cross a bridge to safety but left many more behind. Tajikistan in June and July allowed fleeing soldiers to enter the country but deported nearly all of them back to Afghanistan.
An Uzbek think tank close to the government has argued that what matters in Afghanistan are stability and economic development, whoever is charge.
“They say, ‘We are ready to accept any centralized force that can help Afghanistan,’” Daniel Kiselyov, the editor of Fergana, a Russian-language news site focused on Central Asia, said in a telephone interview. “If the Taliban provides that, they are willing to work with the group.”