Taliban quash Afghanistan protests, tighter grip on country

The Taliban cracked down on protests that erupted in at least four cities in Afghanistan on Thursday and rallied opponents despite promises of amnesty, even though fearful workers stayed at home and thousands of people continued a frantic rush to leave the country.

Even when the Taliban moved to claim control, hundreds of protesters went on the street for another day to gather against their rule, this time marching in Kabul, the capital, as well as other cities. Again, the Taliban met them by force and used shots and beatings to disperse the crowds. And again, the actions of the Taliban infiltrators undermined the leadership’s suggestion that, after taking power, they would moderate the brutality they have long been known for.

The police officers who served the old government have melted away, and instead armed Taliban fighters operate checkpoints and direct traffic, administering their notions of justice as they see fit, with little consistency from one to the other.

The Taliban stepped up an intensive search for people working with US and NATO forces, especially members of the former Afghan security services, according to witnesses and a security assessment prepared for the UN. Although the Taliban have said there would be no retaliation, there have been arrests, seizures of property and scattered reports of retaliation.

Kabul International Airport remained a scene of desperation as thousands struggled to get in and board planes.

Millions of other Afghans, including critical workers, especially women, hid in their homes despite Taliban calls for them to return to work, for fear of either retaliation or the harsh oppression of women that the militants launched when they ruled from 1996 to 2001. It said aid organizations. services such as electricity, sanitation, water and health care may soon be affected.

The Taliban seized control of city after city at remarkable speed as most U.S. forces had withdrawn, sidelined the demoralized and disorganized Afghan security forces and swept into Kabul on Sunday. Now they are learning that while the conquest may have been quick, it is not so easy to run a vibrant, free-thinking society.

The anti-Taliban protests have been a remarkable demonstration of defiance of a group that has a long history of controlling communities through fear and meeting disagreement with deadly force. The protests also offered evidence that while tens of thousands are now seeking refuge, some of the survivors would try – for now at least – to have a voice in the country’s direction despite the growing efforts.

There were news reports of more people being killed in the eastern city of Asadabad as Taliban fighters opened fire on Thursday against a demonstration of people waving the ousted government flag, marking Afghanistan’s annual celebration of gaining independence from Britain in 1919. It was not clear whether the victims had been shot or died in a storm.

There were even protesters waving the flag of Kandahar, the southern city considered the birthplace of the Taliban. In the southeastern city of Khost, the group imposed a curfew a day after demonstrations and clashes there. The protests on Thursday in Kabul included one near the presidential palace and another that attracted about 200 people before the Taliban used force to break it up.

The events, led primarily by young men and women, were a whole new experience for Taliban insurgents, who have spent the last 20 years mostly in the mountains and rural areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When the Taliban last held power before being overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2001, Kabul was a dingy ruin, the people crushed by poverty and harsh rule and isolated from the world. But even as the war dragged on, a new generation of educated, ambitious and media-savvy Afghans grew up in the cities – young people, including women who were used to being heard.

Although Taliban leaders are in talks with former leaders of the ousted government to form an inclusive government council, they said on Thursday that Islamic Emirates Afghanistan – the same name they used a generation ago.

The tricolor flag flown by the collapsed government, taken down by the Taliban and replaced by their own banner, has become a recurring hotspot where people in several cities are being beaten to show it. On Wednesday, the Taliban fired on protesters waving the flag of the eastern city of Jalalabad, with reports of two or three killed.

“Praise those who carry the national flag and thus stand for the dignity of the nation and the country,” Amrullah Saleh, a vice president of the former government who has declared himself acting president, wrote on Twitter. Mr. Saleh has stopped local leaders in the Panjshir Valley in northeastern Afghanistan, who control a group of fighters and so far refuse to recognize the Taliban regime.

One of the protesters in Kandahar, Noorayel Kaliwal, tweeted on Thursday: “Our demand is that no government, system or group in Afghanistan change Afghanistan’s national flag.” He added that he supported a democratic system in the country, had been detained by the Taliban in July for his activism and was moving around to avoid arrest.

In Kabul, Hasiba Atakpal, a journalist with the Afghan news channel Tolo News, said Taliban soldiers had stopped her reporting on the streets. “They took the camera from me, hit my colleague and shot in the air,” she said on Twitter.

She added that after the Taliban spokeswoman’s first news briefing, which was held on Tuesday, when he insisted that the rights of the media and women would be respected, she did not expect very good to come.

“I had low expectations, but now it has become clear that there is a gap between action and words,” Ms Atakpal said.

Residents of Kabul felt cautious under the new regime. The streets were quiet, largely empty of traffic, interrupted by occasional gunfire, and the roar of U.S. military planes patrolling and evacuating around the clock.

With long experience of war and upheavals, most stayed home. In particular, only a few women were on the streets, although some ventured out without wearing the top-to-toe burka that was once mandated under the Taliban, which prohibits women from doing jobs or even venturing out of their homes without a male relative .

Schools were closed in Kabul on Thursday, as were most offices and banks. The electricity had been out for two days, a resident said.

The caution that has affected every household is the fear inspired by the Taliban soldiers, who wave their combat rifles and rockets with a calculated carelessness.

“They look very scary as they have long hair and are very heavily armed,” said Masoom Shesta, 38, a retailer in the center of Kabul.

Another resident said he had been forced to make a quick U-turn when gunfire erupted as he was driving through town.

Many cabalies were already changing their way of complying with the strict social rules that are expected to come into force.

One woman complained that popular Turkish TV series were no longer broadcast after cable companies shut down their services. The Taliban, which banned all television in their earlier days in power, has since adopted the media as a propaganda tool, and cable companies already envisioned new rules on morally acceptable content in line with militants’ strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Mr. Shesta said he was deleting photos from his cell phone of him meeting with former President Ashraf Ghani and other government officials, many of whom have fled the country. Mr. Ghani left the capital on Sunday and several of his senior officials traveled to Turkey on Monday.

At Kabul airport, which is still controlled by US troops, the Taliban has responsibility outside its blast walls and used force and intimidation to control access, beating people back and firing their rifles.

Individuals and families, some after waiting for days, stood or sat in the middle of pieces of past lives that were discarded by others in their haste to escape – shoes, scarves, entire suitcases. Some families waited in taxis. Others came out to walk. Parents bore small children.

Thursday morning, a Taliban fighter stood on a concrete barricade, holding a radio and a gun and shouting. Taxis crept along a road filled with abandoned cars.

“The Taliban are beating people,” said Hayatullah, a resident of Kabul, who asked that only his first name be published to avoid Taliban problems. “They use lashes to disperse the people and sometimes they shoot into the air.”

His son had been trying most of the day to gain access to the airport, with no luck, and he would have to try again tomorrow, he said.

In a video released by The New York Times on Wednesday, men fired in uniform with their rifles – whether it was into the crowd or over it was not entirely clear – while some people screamed and others crawled. A man knocked on the back of a van to prevent it from backing into his mother, whom he pushed into a wheelchair.

The Pentagon said Thursday that about 7,000 Americans and other evacuees, including Afghan allies in the United States, had been aired out of the airport. It is still far from the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers a day that the military said it can fly out when the evacuation process is at full throttle.

The Foreign Ministry said 6,000 people were at Kabul airport fully treated and waiting to board aircraft. There have been reports of non-US evacuation flights leaving with many empty seats, a sign of the difficulties people face when trying to get to the airport.

U.S. commanders said the 5,000 troops deployed to Kabul to secure the airport could not secure anyone’s safe passage to the airport. President Biden said Wednesday in an ABC interview that U.S. troops may remain after the withdrawal date he has set for Aug. 31 if they are needed to get all Americans out.

The Taliban have said they do not keep people from the airport who have valid visas and tickets. One commander said they restricted access to help the international evacuation effort to avoid the kind of overcrowding and chaos that erupted on Monday as people crowded onto the runway and several were killed.

But there have also been reports of Taliban fighters rejecting people with proper documentation and scanning the crowds for former officials to detain.

The threat assessment prepared for the UN by an intelligence advisory group, the Norwegian Center for Global Analyzes, cited several reports that the Taliban had a list of people to be questioned and punished, as well as their locations. Military and police personnel and people working for the overthrown government’s investigation units were particularly vulnerable, according to the document, which was dated Wednesday.

The Taliban already went door-to-door and “arrested and / or threatened to kill or arrest family members of target individuals unless they surrender to the Taliban,” the document, which was seen by The New York Times, said.

It contained a reproduced letter dated August 16 from the Taliban to an unnamed anti-terrorism official in Afghanistan who had worked with US and British officials and then gone into hiding.

The letter instructed the official to report to the Military and Intelligence Commission of the Islamic Emirate Afghanistan in Kabul. If not, it warned that the official’s family members “will be treated based on sharia law.”

Victor J. Blue, Helene Cooper and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.

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