Carrying his rifle down by his side, Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, became the last US soldier to board the final flight out of Afghanistan a minute before midnight on Monday. Taken with a night vision device from a side window of the C-17 transport plane, the ghostly green and black image of the general striding toward the aircraft waiting on the tarmac at Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport was released by the Pentagon hours after the United States ended its 20-year military presence in Afghanistan. As a moment in history, the image of Donahue's departure could be cast alongside that of a Soviet general, who led an armoured column across the Friendship Bridge to Uzbekistan, when the Red Army made its final exit from Afghanistan in 1989. Completing a military operation that with the help of allies succeeded in evacuating 123,000 civilians from Afghanistan, the last plane load of US troops left under cover of the night. Though it is a still image, Donahue appears to be moving briskly, his face expressionless. He is wearing full combat gear, with night vision goggles atop his helmet, and rifle by his side. He had yet to leave Afghanistan behind, and reach safety. In contrast, the images of General Boris Gromov, commander of Soviet Union's 40th Army in Afghanistan, show him walking arm-in-arm with his son on the bridge across the Amu Darya river carrying a bouquet of red and white flowers. The US and Soviet withdrawals from a country that has become known as a graveyard for empires were conducted in very different ways, but at least they avoided the calamitous defeat suffered by Britain in the First Anglo-Afghan war in 1842. The abiding image from that conflict is Elizabeth Thompson's oil painting "Remnants of an Army" depicting a solitary exhausted rider, military assistant surgeon William Brydon, swaying back in the saddle of an even more exhausted horse in the retreat from Kabul. When Russia's Red Army left, a pro-Moscow communist government was still in power and its army would fight on for three more years, whereas US -backed Afghan government had already capitulated and Kabul had fallen to the Taliban a little over two weeks before the Aug. 31 deadline for US troops to depart. Making an orderly exit, the last of Gromov's 50,000 troops still suffered isolated attacks as they drove northwards to the Uzbek border, though they had paid mujahideen groups to secure safe passage along the way. Gromov's column crossed the Friendship Bridge on Feb. 15, 1989, ending the Soviet Union's 10-year war in Afghanistan, during which more than 14,450 Soviet military personnel were killed. Asked how he felt about returning to Soviet soil, Gromov is reported to have answered: "Joy, that we carried out our duty and came home. I did not look back." The final US evacuation of Kabul will be judged by how many people were brought out, and how many were left behind. But Donahue and his comrades will carry harrowing images from their chaotic last days in Kabul; parents passing babies to them across the razor wire, two young Afghans falling from a plane climbing high in the sky, and worst of all, the aftermath of an Islamic State suicide bomb attack outside the airport on Aug. 26 that killed scores of Afghans and 13 of their own.
The US military announced the departure of the last US troops from Afghanistan Monday, concluding a 20-year conflict that ended with the Taliban seizing control of the country. "I'm here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens," head of Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie said. The last flight, a large C-17 military transport, took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport one minute before midnight Kabul time, McKenzie said. President Joe Biden set a deadline of August 31 for the withdrawal earlier this year. The final flight took place under heavy security following two attacks on the two-week evacuation operation by Islamic State-Khorasan – one a suicide bombing that left more than 100 people dead, including 13 US troops. McKenzie said the Taliban had been "very helpful and useful" in conducting the evacuation and the final flights, despite the deep enmity between the two sides. US troops led a NATO coalition to eject the Taliban from power in 2001 after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by Al-Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan and protected by the Taliban. The sound of gunfire was heard across Kabul after the US military confirmed their exit to end the 20-year war.
Afghan women will be allowed to study at university but there would be a ban on mixed classes under their rule, the Taliban’s acting higher education minister said yesterday. The hardline group that stormed to power in mid-August after ousting the Western-back government have vowed to rule differently compared to their 1990s stint when girls and women were banned from education. “The... people of Afghanistan will continue their higher education in the light of Shariah law in safety without being in a mixed male and female environment,” Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Taliban’s acting minister for higher education said at a meeting with elders, known as a loya jirga, yesterday. He said the Taliban want to “create a reasonable and Islamic curriculum that is in line with our Islamic, national and historical values and, on the other hand, be able to compete with other countries”. Girls and boys will also be segregated at primary and secondary schools, which was already common throughout deeply conservative Afghanistan. The group have pledged to respect progress made in women’s rights, but only according to their strict interpretation of Islamic law. Whether women can work, get education at all levels and be able to mix with men have been some of the most pressing questions. But the Taliban rebranding is being treated with scepticism, with many questioning whether the group will stick to its pledges. No women were present at the meeting in Kabul yesterday, which included other senior Taliban officials. “The Taliban’s ministry of higher education consulted only male teachers and students on resuming the function of universities,” said a lecturer, who worked at a city university during the last government. She said that showed “the systematic prevention of women’s participation in decision making” and “a gap between the Taliban’s commitments and actions”. University admission rates have risen over the past 20 years, particularly among women who have studied side by side with men and attended seminars with male professors. But a spate of attacks on education centres in recent months, killing dozens, had caused panic. The Taliban denied being behind the attacks, some of which were claimed by the local chapter of the Islamic State group. During their previous brutal rule, the Taliban excluded women from public life, entertainment was banned and brutal punishments were imposed — such as stoning to death for adultery. The Taliban have yet to announce their government, saying they would wait until after the departure of US and foreign forces.
The Taliban said yesterday they would announce a new government for Afghanistan in the coming week and expected the economic turbulence and sharp currency falls that followed their take-over of the city two weeks ago to subside quickly. Zabihullah Mujahid, the movement’s main spokesman, made the comments to Reuters as the US military winds down its mission to evacuate US citizens and vulnerable Afghans and withdraw troops from Kabul airport ahead of the August 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden. Mujahid condemned an overnight US drone strike against Islamic State militants following Thursday’s suicide attack near the airport as a “clear attack on Afghan territory”. But he appealed to the United States and other Western nations to maintain diplomatic relations after their withdrawal, which he expected would be completed “very soon”. There is mounting frustration in Kabul at the severe economic hardship caused by a plummeting currency and rising food prices, with banks still shuttered two weeks after the fall of the city to the Taliban. Mujahid said officials had already been appointed to run key institutions including the ministries of public health and education and the central bank. United Nations officials have warned that Afghanistan faces a humanitarian catastrophe, with large parts of the country suffering from extreme drought conditions. The economy, shattered after four decades of war, also faces the loss of billions of dollars in foreign aid, following the withdrawal of Western embassies from the country. Mujahid said the economic problems being experienced would be eased once the new government was in place. “The fall of Afghani against foreign currency is temporary and it is because of the situation that suddenly changed, it will come back to normal once the government system starts functioning,” he said.
In the days since taking power in Afghanistan, a wide range of Taliban figures have entered Kabul — hardened commandos, armed madrassa students and greying leaders back from years of exile. There has been one major exception — the group’s supreme leader. Hibatullah Akhundzada — the so-called commander of the faithful — has shepherded the Taliban as its chief since 2016 when snatched from relative obscurity to oversee a movement in crisis. After taking the insurgency’s reins, the cleric was tasked with the mammoth challenge of unifying a jihadist movement that briefly fractured during a bitter power struggle. The infighting came as the group was hit with successive blows — the assassination of Akhundzada’s predecessor and the revelation that its leaders had hidden the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar. Little is still known about Akhundzada’s day-to-day role, with his public profile largely limited to the release of annual messages during Islamic holidays. Apart from a single photograph released by the Taliban, the leader has never made a public appearance and his whereabouts remain largely unknown. Since taking control of Kabul in mid-August, the group has remained tight-lipped about Akhundzada’s movements. “You will see him soon, God willing,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters this week when asked about Akhundzada’s whereabouts. The ongoing silence comes as the heads of various Taliban factions have openly preached in Kabul’s mosques, met with opposition figures, and even chatted with Afghan cricket officials in recent days. The Taliban have a long history of keeping their top leader in the shadows. The group’s enigmatic founder Mullah Mohamed Omar was notorious for his hermit ways and rarely travelled to Kabul when the group was in power in the 1990s. Instead, Omar stayed largely out of sight in his compound in Kandahar, reluctant even to meet visiting delegations. Still, his word was rule and no singular figure has emerged to command the movement with the same respect. Laurel Miller — the head of the Asia programme at the International Crisis Group — said Akhundzada “appears to have adopted a reclusive style similar” to that of Omar. The secrecy might also be fuelled by security reasons, Miller added, citing the assassination of his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansour by a US drone strike. “A Taliban spokesman has indicated their leader will emerge soon, and he might have reasons to do that to quash suspicions of his demise,” Miller told AFP. “But it’s also possible that after showing himself he would withdraw and exercise his authority in a remote fashion, as Mullah Omar did.” Akhundzada’s absence follows years of rumours about his health, with chatter in Pakistan and Afghanistan suggesting he had contracted Covid or had been killed in a bombing. There has never been much in the way to prove these rumours, but Akhundzada’s secrecy comes at a sensitive time for the erstwhile insurgency. There are myriad Taliban factions comprising groups from across Afghanistan, representing a vast array of constituents. The revelation in 2015 that the Taliban leadership had for years hidden the death of Mullah Omar sparked a brief but bloody power struggle, with at least one major faction splitting from the group. As the Taliban transition from fighting to governance, balancing the interests of their numerous factions will be crucial to consolidating power. Any power vacuum would risk destabilising a movement that has managed to stay cohesive following decades of conflict, tens of thousands of foot soldiers killed, and top leaders assassinated or shipped off to the US prison in Guantanamo Bay. Others suggest the group may just be biding its time until US-led forces make their final exit from Afghanistan in the coming days. “The Taliban consider themselves in a state of jihad” as long as foreign troops are on Afghan soil and will likely keep their leader hidden until they leave, said Pakistan-based security analyst Imtiaz Gul. “That’s why the supreme leader is not surfacing.”
Order replaced chaos at Kabul airport yesterday with Taliban fighters escorting a steady stream of Afghans from buses to the main passenger terminal, handing them over to US troops for evacuation. Gone are the tens of thousands clamouring to get inside the airport grounds in the hope of getting aboard a flight before August 31, when the US-led evacuation ends and the last foreign troops depart. The deadly Islamic State suicide blast at a secondary entrance on Thursday likely scared away many looking for a way to escape the return to power of the hardliners, but the Taliban have also sealed off all roads leading to the airport and are now only letting sanctioned buses pass. “We have lists from the Americans... if your name is on the list, you can come through,” one Taliban official told AFP near the civilian passenger terminal of Hamid Karzai International Airport. “If your name isn’t here, then you cannot come through.” Yesterday AFP saw more than a dozen small- and medium-sized buses disgorge tense-looking passengers at the main gate of the airport. It was unclear who had organised the buses — or where they had come from — and the Taliban officials and guards present would not allow the passengers to be interviewed. The men and women were separated and made to walk on opposite sides of the road, but both groups carried infants or led children by the hand — some oblivious to their ordeal and skipping as if on an adventure. Everyone was stripped of their luggage apart from what they could keep in a plastic bag — but a Taliban official was quick to offer an explanation. “Because of the blast, the Americans won’t let them take anything,” he said. “We tell them to take the money and the gold in their pockets. If they leave clothes we will give to other people.” Heavily armed Taliban fighters were seen throughout the grounds and auxiliary buildings of the airport complex, while US marines peered at them from the passenger terminal roof. After a 20-year war, the foes were within open sight of each other, separated by just 30m, and holding fire. Also in view of the American troops were Badri special forces in humvees gifted to the Afghan defence forces, but now flying the white Taliban flag.
Suicide bombers struck the crowded gates of Kabul airport with at least two explosions yesterday, causing a bloodbath among civilians and US troops, and bringing a catastrophic halt to the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans desperate to flee. Another large explosion was heard in Kabul in the wee hours of today, but which the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed was the US military destroying ammunition. Two US officials put the US death toll at 12 service members killed, making it one of the deadliest incidents for American troops of the entire 20-year war. There was no complete toll of Afghan civilians but video images uploaded by Afghan journalists showed dozens of bodies of people killed in packed crowds outside the airport. A watery ditch by the airport fence was filled with bloodsoaked corpses, some being fished out and laid in heaps on the canal side while wailing civilians searched for loved ones. Several Western countries said the airlift of civilians was now effectively over, with the United States having sealed the gates of the airport leaving no way out for tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the West through two decades of war. A Taliban official said at least 13 people including children had been killed in the attack and 52 were wounded, though it was clear from video footage that those figures were far from complete. One surgical hospital run by an Italian charity said it alone was treating more than 60 wounded. The explosions took place amid the crowds outside the airport who have been massing for days in hope of escaping in an airlift which the United States says will end by Tuesday, following the swift capture of the country by the Taliban. To Page 9 The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide attack at the airport during the US-led evacuation from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the SITE monitoring agency said. The bomber “was able today to penetrate all the security fortifications” and get within “five metres (16 feet)” of US forces before detonating his explosives belt, the jihadist group’s propaganda arm Amaq said, according to a translation by SITE. The statement only appeared to mention one bomber and one blast. At least two bombs are believed to have detonated during yesterday’s attack at the airport. A witness who gave his name as Jamshed said he went to the airport in the hope of getting a visa for the United States. “There was a very strong and powerful suicide attack, in the middle of the people. Many were killed, including Americans,” he said. General Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, told reporters before the claim of responsibility that once the United States confirmed who was behind the attack “we will go after them”. He also said that the threat of more attacks, including a vehicle bomb, remained “imminent”, and warned that the group would also like to attack one of the dozens of aircraft flying in and out of the airport as the evacuation continues. Zubair, a 24 year-old civil engineer who had been trying for a nearly week to get inside the airport with a cousin who had papers authorising him to travel to the United States, said he was 50m from the first of two suicide bombers who detonated explosives at the gate. “Men, women and children were screaming. I saw many injured people – men, women and children – being loaded into private vehicles and taken toward the hospitals,” he said. After the explosions there was gunfire. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said on Twitter: “We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US and civilian casualties. We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate.” Taliban official Suhail Shaheen said there were two explosions in a crowded area managed by US forces. “We strongly condemn this gruesome incident and will take every step to bring the culprits to justice.” The Taliban did not identify the attackers, but a spokesman described it as the work of “evil circles” who would be suppressed once the foreign troops leave. Washington and its allies had been urging civilians to stay away from the airport yesterday, citing the threat of an Islamic State suicide attack. In the past 12 days, Western countries have evacuated nearly 100,000 people, mostly Afghans who helped them. However, they say many thousands more will be left behind following US President Joe Biden’s order to pull out all troops by August 31. The last few days of the airlift will mostly be used to withdraw the remaining troops. Canada and some European countries have already announced the end of their airlifts, while publicly lamenting Biden’s abrupt pullout. “The doors at the airport are now closed and it is no longer possible to get people in,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide said yesterday. “We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” the acting chief of Canada’s defence staff, General Wayne Eyre, told reporters. Biden ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban negotiated by his predecessor Donald Trump. He spurned calls this week from European allies for more time. The abrupt collapse of the Western-backed government in Afghanistan caught US officials by surprise and risks reversing gains, especially in the rights of women and girls, millions of whom have been going to school and work, once forbidden under the Taliban. Biden has defended the decision to leave, saying that US forces could not stay indefinitely.
The Taliban has been showing off its own “special forces” on social media, soldiers in new uniforms equipped with looted American equipment who contrast sharply with the image of the usual Afghan insurgent. Pictures and videos of fighters in the so-called “Badri 313” unit have been posted online for propaganda purposes to underline how the Taliban have better equipped and trained men at their disposal than in the past, experts say. The soldiers are shown in uniforms, boots, balaclavas and body armour similar to those worn by special forces around the world — and unlike the shalwar kameez, turban and sandals of the traditional Taliban fighter. Rather than a battered Russian-designed Kalashnikov rifle slung over their shoulder, the men of Badri 313 hold new US-made rifles such as the M4, sometimes with night-vision goggles and advanced gunsights. Badri 313 “likely represents some of the best trained and equipped fighters within the Taliban more broadly, although as you would expect there is a degree of sensationalising in propaganda coverage of the unit by the group,” Matt Henman from the Janes defence consultancy told AFP. A Western weapons expert who writes anonymously on Twitter under the pseudonym of Calibre Obscura said the unit would be no match for Western special forces, or those of India or Pakistan. But “they are more effective than normal Taliban and certainly more than standard Afghan national army troops from a couple of weeks ago,” he told AFP. The Taliban unit could number up to several thousand men, experts say. The amount of equipment at their disposal is unclear, but multiple pictures online show jubilant Taliban fighters posing with captured armoured Humvees, aircraft and weapons abandoned by the defeated US-equipped Afghan national army. Experts say the most sophisticated equipment, especially the helicopters, will be difficult to operate and near-impossible to maintain. “There is certainly a degree of propaganda, but we saw during the final offensive since May that the Taliban special forces have been critical in the taking over of Afghanistan,” said Bill Roggio, managing editor of the US-based Long War Journal. “When they began to overrun the Afghan forces, they progressively integrated Western supplies. The US in effect armed the Taliban army,” he added. In previous days, the unit has been in charge of security outside Kabul international airport, bringing them nearly face-to-face with American troops inside who are overseeing the airlift of thousands of civilians. In a social media post, Badri 313 troops even mocked their US counterparts by recreating the famed picture of American soldiers raising the Stars and Stripes on the island of Iwo Jima in 1945. The Taliban figures in uniforms are seen raising their black-and-white flag. Badri 313 is also seen as having benefited from training from the Haqqani network, Afghanistan’s most ruthless and feared militant group which has been responsible for multiple suicide attacks on civilian targets. Mainly based in eastern Afghanistan, the group has become more visible in the Taliban leadership in recent years. Gilles Dorronsoro, an expert on Afghanistan at the Sorbonne University in Paris, said the emergence of the new Taliban commandoes was part of a larger trend. “We’ve seen a remarkable professionalisation of the Taliban since the middle of the 2000s,” he told AFP. “The war they are fighting is not the same as the one their parents fought against the Soviets. They’ve learned from the ground and they are very good technically,” he added.
For years the Taliban’s top spokesman shunned the public eye, even as he amassed hundreds of thousands of followers online where he live-tweeted the insurgency. But days after the Taliban captured Kabul following the collapse of the US-backed government, Zabihullah Mujahid presented himself to the public for the first time in a surprise press conference in the Afghan capital. At first glance, there was little that distinguished the Taliban spokesman from its other leaders — the middle-aged jihadist sported a black turban and full black beard framing a stoney demeanour carved from decades of war. “We have expelled the foreigners,” he proclaimed in his opening remarks. Just days earlier, Mujahid announced via social media the assassination of leading government spokesman Dawa Khan Menapal, boasting that the killing had been orchestrated “in a special attack” carried out by the Taliban. The spokesman is now sitting in Menapal’s old seat, seeking to allay concern about how the Taliban will rule. “All those on the opposite side are pardoned from A to Z,” said Mujahid as he fielded questions from the remnants of the Afghan press corps. “We will not seek revenge.” For years, there was a debate as to whether Mujahid was even a single person — his moniker serving as cover for the Taliban’s sprawling information wing. But Mujahid was real and relaxed in his public debut, delivering assurances in a live broadcast on behalf of a group that once banned television. When asked if the Taliban expected to be forgiven following their brutal campaign of violence that brought death and destruction to Afghan cities, Mujahid did not sidestep. The losses, however devastating, were worth it, he argued. “A huge occupying force was defeated,” he explained. Notorious for banning TV and radio under their iron-fisted rule in the 1990s, the Taliban have adapted to the ever-changing nature of modern media and deftly used it to their advantage. “The Taliban understand that the information war is modern warfare,” wrote Richard Stengel — a former under secretary of state for the Obama administration — in a New York Times editorial. “They are not trying to build a new platform; they’re trying to integrate into and dominate the existing landscape.” Mujahid is believed to oversee a vast public relations operation that has co-ordinated countless press releases, interview requests and questions from journalists in recent years. Outside of his social media presence, Mujahid and his team also managed an impressive network of WhatsApp groups, where they delivered real time updates directly to journalists. Little is known about the spokesman’s past roles in the movement, but his impact on their string of victories has been monumental even as other spokesmen emerged and took on more public roles from the Taliban’s political office abroad. Under Mujahid’s leadership, the Taliban effectively owned the battlefield narrative during the group’s final offensive this summer, providing detailed sketches of its fighters’ movements as the Afghan government stayed largely silent. The Taliban’s victory appeared all but inevitable, according to the narrative presented by the Taliban press office, as government forces surrendered en masse often without a shot fired. During the last 10 days of the war, Mujahid would announce the fall of every new city to the Taliban with a tweet, becoming the de-facto minister of information of the conflict that his group was winning rapidly. Now in power, Mujahid will be faced with a new task — convincing Afghans and the international community that the Taliban are able to transition from fighting to governing. “All issues can be resolved with talks,” Mujahid told reporters Tuesday. “We give our brothers reassurances. We have the same country and the same goals.”
• As with their promises about other issues such as women’s rights and amnesty, there appears to be little trust among Afghanistan’s journalists that they mean what they say Scores of journalists are among the tens of thousands of people trying to flee Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover, fearful of violent reprisals from the militants. Despite their assurances, the group’s return to power is seen as a serious blow to Afghan media, which saw explosive growth after the first Taliban regime was toppled in 2001. There was no Afghan media to speak of when they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. They banned television, movies and most other forms of entertainment for being immoral. Some electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic, too. People caught watching TV faced punishment, including having their set smashed. Ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing. For a while, magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes could be seen fluttering from trees in some parts of the capital Kabul. There was only one radio station, Voice of Sharia that broadcast propaganda and Islamic programming. Under the US-backed setup formed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there was massive growth in the Afghan media sector, including private TV and radio networks. And it was not just news — movies, soap operas, talent shows and music videos were also produced. Afghanistan now has more than 50 TV channels, 165 radio stations and dozens of publications, watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said this month, citing the national press federation. Internet and social media access, especially through smartphones, has proliferated in recent years too. Most dramatically, the opening up of Afghan media allowed space and opportunities for the country’s women, who were shut out from public life, education and workplaces by the Taliban. Hundreds of women around the country worked on and behind the screen as journalists, producers, hosts and performers. Dozens of Afghan journalists also worked for foreign media. After the fall of Kabul, Taliban officials in Doha and Afghanistan stressed that the media could continue to operate freely and that journalists would not be harassed or harmed. They held a formal press conference where spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took blunt questions. One Taliban official even sat down for a TV interview with a woman journalist, as if to press the point. As with their promises about other issues such as women’s rights and amnesty, however, there appears to be little trust among Afghanistan’s journalists that they mean what they say. In recent weeks, dozens of TV and radio outlets have stopped broadcasting or were seized by the Taliban as the militants rapidly captured territories on their way to Kabul. And despite the promises made by their top spokesmen, Taliban fighters have been reportedly going door-to-door in recent days searching for opponents — including journalists. In the northern province of Jawzjan, local radio station Salam Watandar said Monday that it will be allowed to broadcast content after it has been reviewed by the local Taliban office. There is strong basis for the fear and mistrust among Afghan journalists. Despite the growth of the sector, Afghanistan has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters, with at least 53 killed since 2001 according to the Committee to Protect journalists. Media workers have been targeted with impunity for years by militant groups, a major factor in Afghanistan’s low ranking on press freedom indices. A high-profile woman journalist at state-run broadcaster RTA said last week that she was told to go home because “the system has been changed”. “Our lives are under threat,” said Shabnam Dawran. Many Afghan journalists are reportedly in hiding or trying to leave the country on evacuation flights from Kabul. A large number who worked for foreign media have left, but it is a hugely difficult situation for those without foreign sponsorship. Veteran Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, who left Sunday, said the situation had gone beyond control. “A massacre of my dreams and aspirations,” he tweeted. “A tragic day in my life.”
Scores of journalists are among the tens of thousands of people trying to flee Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover, fearful of violent reprisals from the militants. Despite their assurances, the Islamist group's return to power is seen as a serious blow to Afghan media, which saw explosive growth after the first Taliban regime was toppled in 2001. - What was the Afghan media like under the Taliban? - There was no Afghan media to speak of when the Islamists ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. They banned television, movies and most other forms of entertainment for being immoral. Some electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic too. People caught watching TV faced punishment, including having their set smashed. Ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing. For a while, magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes could be seen fluttering from trees in some parts of the capital Kabul. There was only one radio station, Voice of Sharia, that broadcast propaganda and Islamic programming. - What happened after they were toppled? - Under the US-backed setup formed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there was massive growth in the Afghan media sector, including private TV and radio networks. And it was not just news -- movies, soap operas, talent shows and music videos were also produced. Afghanistan now has more than 50 TV channels, 165 radio stations and dozens of publications, watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said this month, citing the national press federation. Internet and social media access, especially through smartphones, has proliferated in recent years too. Most dramatically, the opening up of Afghan media allowed space and opportunities for the country's women, who were shut out from public life, education and workplaces by the Taliban. Hundreds of women around the country worked on and behind the screen as journalists, producers, hosts and performers. Dozens of Afghan journalists also worked for foreign media. - What have the Taliban promised now? - After the fall of Kabul, Taliban officials in Doha and Afghanistan stressed that the media could continue to operate freely and that journalists would not be harassed or harmed. They held a formal press conference where spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took blunt questions. One Taliban official even sat down for a TV interview with a woman journalist, as if to press the point. As with their promises about other issues such as women's rights and amnesty, however, there appears to be little trust among Afghanistan's journalists that the Islamists mean what they say. In recent weeks, dozens of TV and radio outlets have stopped broadcasting or were seized by the Taliban as the militants rapidly captured territories on their way to Kabul. And despite the promises made by their top spokesmen, Taliban fighters have been reportedly going door-to-door in recent days searching for opponents -- including journalists. In the northern province of Jawzjan, local radio station Salam Watandar said Monday that it will be allowed to broadcast content after it has been reviewed by the local Taliban office. - What are Afghan journalists saying? - There is strong basis for the fear and mistrust among Afghan journalists. Despite the growth of the sector, Afghanistan has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters, with at least 53 killed since 2001 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Media workers have been targeted with impunity for years by militant groups, a major factor in Afghanistan's low ranking on press freedom indices. A high-profile woman journalist at state-run broadcaster RTA said last week that she was told to go home because "the system has been changed". "Our lives are under threat," said Shabnam Dawran. Many Afghan journalists are reportedly in hiding or trying to leave the country on evacuation flights from Kabul. A large number who worked for foreign media have left, but it is a hugely difficult situation for those without foreign sponsorship. Veteran Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, who left Sunday, said the situation had gone beyond control. "A massacre of my dreams and aspirations," he tweeted. "A tragic day in my life."
If one individual could bring peace to Afghanistan, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad touted himself as the man for the job. In the end, however, the seasoned diplomat has overseen the demise of the republic he so painstakingly assembled. The 70-year-old Afghan-American envoy spent years as Washington’s point man for talks with the Taliban that paved the way for the deal to see the US end its longest war and exit Afghanistan. That milestone came after more than a year of intense shuttle diplomacy during which Khalilzad visited foreign capitals, attended summits at glitzy hotels, and gave speeches at prestigious think tanks. The Taliban were ready to discuss a compromise, he assured his audiences. Once a prolific social media voice, Khalilzad has gone silent since the Taliban returned to power following the collapse of the US-backed government in the face of an overwhelming blitzkrieg. The State Department said last week the envoy was working the phones in hopes of encouraging a diplomatic settlement. But the deal he had hoped could end the war had actually unleashed disaster. Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said Khalilzad told successive US presidents eager to withdraw their troops that he had a peace deal, but it was in fact a surrender. “He negotiated poorly, emboldened the Taliban, and pretended that talks would yield a power-sharing agreement even though the Taliban had no intention to share power,” Haqqani told AFP. Khalilzad took control of the US-Afghan portfolio in 2018 after the Trump administration named him a special envoy overseeing negotiations with the Taliban. The new assignment followed a storied career. Khalilzad had shaped embryonic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq following successive US invasions, gaining a reputation for bringing disparate groups to the table. Washington’s decision to pursue talks followed years of rising violence in Kabul where the Taliban unleashed chaos by sending waves of suicide bombers into the Afghan capital. Khalilzad secured the release of the Taliban’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from Pakistan’s custody to kickstart the initiative, with the two sides cobbling together an agreement charting the US withdrawal after nearly two decades of conflict. During months of negotiations subsequently, Khalilzad was said to have developed a close rapport with the Taliban delegation. Pictures published online showed the gregarious envoy sharing laughs and smiles with insurgent negotiators, stirring resentment in Afghanistan where the war raged. But when the US withdrawal deal was finally signed in February 2020, Khalilzad had secured mostly nebulous assurances from the Taliban about any future peace. “Khalilzad prised... just one strong commitment — that they would not attack the US and ‘its allies’,” wrote Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in a new report. More vague were promises from the Taliban to abandon Al Qaeda and other international jihadist groups, and to begin talking to the Afghan government. In hindsight, the agreement appears to have been little more than a string of American concessions. The US was leaving Afghanistan without a ceasefire and had not even established a framework for a future peace process that would be vital for locking down a settlement to end the war. Rather than securing compromises from the Taliban in the months following the deal, Khalilzad piled more pressure on the Afghan government — strong-arming the palace into releasing thousands of insurgent prisoners who immediately bolstered the militant ranks. To add to Kabul’s woes, the agreement effectively set off a countdown, with the US promising to pull all of its remaining troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 — a deadline later extended until September. The Afghan government was left with little time or space to manoeuvre. US President Joe Biden’s decision in April to follow through with the withdrawal lit the final fuse, sparking an all-out offensive by the Taliban that overthrew the Afghan government by force on August 15. Two days earlier, US lawmaker Michael Waltz — an Afghan veteran — sent a letter to Biden pillorying Khalilzad’s performance. Khalilzad “has provided you with poor counsel and his diplomatic strategy has failed spectacularly”, he wrote. “In light of this catastrophe, Ambassador (Khalilzad) should resign immediately or be relieved from his position.” That same day, Khalilzad sent out his last tweet — begging the Taliban to pull back its fighters as they converged on Kabul. “We demand an immediate end to attacks against cities, urge a political settlement, and warn that a government imposed by force will be a pariah state,” the envoy wrote. By then, it was too late.
As she started a new life in Spain after escaping the chaos of Kabul, Nilofar Bayat said yesterday she could not live under the Taliban, who she fears will reverse all the achievements Afghanistan has made over the past 20 years. The captain of the Afghan women’s wheelchair basketball team arrived in Madrid on Friday on a flight from Kabul with her husband Ramesh Naik Zai, 27, and over 100 other refugees. “I saw at (Kabul) airport how dangerous (the Taliban) are. I saw them shooting and beating. I was crying. My husband told me be strong, I will never leave you alone,” Bayat, 28, told Reuters. “When I saw the Taliban I told (my husband) I want to leave this country because I cannot live with these people.” Bayat was offered a chance to play for Bidaideak Bilbao BSR, a basketball team for wheelchair users in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao, where the couple will live. When she was two years old, her family’s house in Kabul was hit by a rocket, injuring her spinal cord. Her brother was killed. Bayat’s husband was also injured by a mine. “They (the Taliban) came and changed my life and (my husband’s) life. They put an unstoppable pain in our lives. A permanent disability that we have to accept.” Bayat, who was given a place on the plane out of Kabul thanks to efforts by the Spanish government and the Spanish Basketball Federation, fears for the future of Afghanistan under the Taliban. “They will destroy all the wishes and achievements of the past 20 years,” Bayat said. She said she feared that the role of women will be diminished under the Taliban. “Being a woman in the Taliban regime means nothing, you are not part of the society.” As she began her new life, she said of her compatriots in Afghanistan: “We pray for them to be safe. Please don’t give up.”
Tens of thousands of Afghans were racing Sunday to flee their country as the United States warned of security threats at Kabul's chaotic airport and the European Union said it was "impossible" to evacuate everyone at risk from the Taliban. In the week since the hardline Islamist militants took back power in Afghanistan, the Taliban have vowed a softer version of their brutal rule from 1996-2001, and taken steps towards forming a government. But terrified Afghans continue to try to flee, deepening a tragedy at Kabul airport where the United States and its allies have been unable to cope with the huge numbers of people trying to get on evacuation flights. A journalist, who was among a group of other media workers and academics lucky enough to get to the airport on Sunday for an evacuation flight, described desperate scenes of people surrounding their bus on the way in. "They were showing us their passports and shouting 'take us with you... please take us with you'," the journalist told AFP. "The Taliban fighter in the truck ahead of us had to shoot in the air to make them go away." Britain's Sky News on Saturday aired footage of at least three bodies covered in white tarpaulin outside the airport. It was not clear how they had died. Sky reporter Stuart Ramsay, who was at the airport, called the deaths "inevitable" and said people were being "crushed", while others were "dehydrated and terrified". The footage was the latest image of utter despair, after video of a baby being lifted over a wall at the airport and horror scenes of people hanging onto departing planes. - 'Impossible' deadline - The United States, which has thousands of troops trying to secure the airport, has set a deadline to complete the evacuations by August 31. But there are up to 15,000 Americans and 50,000 to 60,000 Afghan allies who need to be evacuated, according to the Biden administration. There are countless others who fear repression under the Taliban and are also trying to flee. US President Joe Biden has described the evacuation operations as "one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history". The situation was further complicated on Saturday when the US government warned its citizens to stay away from the airport because of "security threats". No specific reason was given, but a White House official later said Biden had been briefed on "counter terrorism" threats, including the Islamic State group. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell gave a bleak assessment of whether the airlifts would succeed. "They want to evacuate 60,000 people between now and the end of this month. It's mathematically impossible," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told AFP. Borrell added that "we have complained" to the Americans that their airport security was overly strict and hampering attempts by Afghans who worked for the Europeans to enter. On Saturday the Pentagon said 17,000 people had been taken out since the operation began on August 14, including 2,500 Americans. Thousands more have left on other foreign military flights. - Taliban government - The Taliban have been publicly content to allow the US military oversee the airlift, while focusing on how they will run the country once the foreign forces leave. Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar flew into Kabul and planned to meet jihadi leaders, elders and politicians in the coming days, an official told AFP. Among them are leaders of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist organisation with million-dollar bounties on its leadership. - Resistance - The Taliban stunned the world when they swept into Kabul last week, ending two decades of war, facing virtually no opposition from government forces that had been trained and equipped by the US-led alliance. However there have been since been flickers of resistance, with some ex-government troops gathering in the Panjshir Valley, a mountainous region north of Kabul long known as anti-Taliban bastion. One of the leaders of the National Resistance Front is the son of famed anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. The NRF is prepared for a "long-term conflict" but is also still seeking to negotiate with the Taliban about an inclusive government, its spokesman told AFP in an interview. "The conditions for a peace deal with the Taliban is decentralisation, a system that ensures social justice, equality, rights, and freedom for all," Ali Maisam Nazary said.
The United States and Germany yesterday told their citizens in Afghanistan to avoid travelling to Kabul airport, citing security risks as thousands of desperate people gathered trying to flee almost a week after Taliban Islamists took control. The Taliban’s co-founder, Mullah Baradar, arrived in the Afghan capital for talks with other leaders yesterday. The group is trying to hammer out a new government after its forces swept across the country as US-led forces pulled out, with the Western-backed government and military collapsing. Crowds have grown at the airport in the heat and dust of the day over the past week, hindering operations as the United States and other nations attempt to evacuate thousands of their diplomats and civilians as well as numerous Afghans. Mothers, fathers and children have pushed up against concrete blast walls in the crush as they seek to get a flight out. The Taliban have urged those without travel documents to go home. At least 12 people have been killed in and around the single-runway airfield since Sunday, when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Nato and Taliban officials said. “Because of potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport, we are advising US citizens to avoid travelling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a US government representative to do so,” a US Embassy advisory said. The German Embassy also advised its citizens not to go to the airport, warning in an email that Taliban forces were conducting increasingly strict controls in its immediate vicinity. The advisories underscored just how unsettled the security situation remains.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday appealed to European Union states to take in Afghan refugees flown out from Kabul, promising financial support from Brussels. "To those who cannot go back or stay home, we have to offer alternatives," said von der Leyen, after visiting a military base in northeast Spain that will serve as a reception centre for Afghans arriving from Kabul who worked for the EU. "This means, first, that we must offer legal and safe routes globally, organised by us, to those who need our protection." All EU states that had operated missions in Afghanistan needed to draw up adequate quotas so those who needed protection would get it, she said. "The Commission stands ready to look into the necessary budgetary means to support EU member states who will step up and help resettle refugees," she added. EU Council President Charles Michel, the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borell and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Spanish also visited the base, at Torrejoin de Ardoz. "Close to 150 people have been evacuated so far; our efforts on the ground continue to get all staff and dependants to safety," Borrell tweeted. Sanchez said the centre would be used to process the arriving Afghans and their families before they are settled in EU countries, has a capacity for 800 people. Some countries had already agreed to take in the former EU employees, including Denmark and some of the Baltic countries, he added, without elaborating. For nearly a week now, Western countries have been scrambling to evacuate not just their own nationals but Afghans who worked for them and who fear reprisals from the new Taliban regime.
A heart-breaking video showing a US Marine lifting a baby over a razor wire-topped wall at Kabul's airport caught global attention Friday, amid the chaos of thousands trying to flee Afghanistan newly controlled by the Taliban. The video, which shows the infant, its diaper slipping off, being pulled up by one arm high above a crowd of Afghans seeking to enter the airport, took over social media nearly one week into the airlift to evacuate foreigners and Afghans from the war-torn country. It put a tender edge on the tense evacuation, in which nearly 6,000 heavily armed US troops have taken control of the airport, while their long-time foe the Taliban patrol the streets outside and begin to exercise what many fear will be a harsh and anti-American rule. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Marines were told the unidentified baby was sick and were asked to help. "The video you are talking about -- the parent asked the Marines to look after the baby because the baby was ill," he told reporters. "So the Marine you see reaching over the wall took it to a Norwegian hospital that is at the airport. They treated the child and returned the child to the child's father," he said. "It was an act of compassion because there was concern about the baby." He said he did not know who the family was, or their status -- whether or not they had been accepted to immigrate to the Untied States under a special program for Afghans who worked for the Americans or were otherwise at high risk from the Taliban. While the video of that act appeared to be independently filmed, the US military released several other officially approved photographs of soldiers helping out children of people hoping to escape Afghanistan. In one, a soldier in his combat gear sits with a blanketed baby in his arms, smiling at the child like the father of a newborn, while his fellow soldiers stand nearby on alert. In another, two female American soldiers hold babies in their arms. Still another depicts one of the US troops giving water to a little boy. "This is the America we need to be," said US congressman and military veteran Peter Meijer on Twitter of the images. The official Pentagon images stood out amid a stark lack of independently taken pictures from inside the airport, where thousands of people waited Friday amid difficult conditions to board US C-17 cargo aircraft bound for Qatar.
The Taliban have tried to reassure fearful Afghans -- and a wary international community -- that this time around they will be "positively different", but their reputation precedes them and few trust the group. Here are five promises the Taliban have made -- and their record on the issues: - Women will have rights, but... - The Taliban are "committed" to the rights of women, who will be able to work and study, the group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday. But he stressed at every mention of women that their rights will be determined by Islamic law. That has always been interpreted by the Taliban's ultra-conservative leadership. The last time they were in power, from 1996 to 2001, they brutally suppressed women's rights. Girls were banned from going to school, and women were largely barred from public life -- allowed out of the house only when covered head-to-toe in a burqa and accompanied by a male relative. Women accused of violating these rules were given harsh punishments -- including being stoned to death for adultery. Even after they were toppled by US-led forces in 2001, women suffered similar restrictions in the areas under Taliban control. The militants have threatened and attacked women activists, journalists, MPs and even educators for two decades. - Pardons for all? - The Taliban have insisted that they have forgiven all that fought against them -- including government officials, the police and the armed forces. But many are sceptical because of their record with amnesty announcements, and tens of thousands of Afghans have tried to leave the country since the Taliban victory fearing reprisals. During their first regime, Taliban fighters killed political opponents and also massacred civilians and religious minorities. In recent months, the Taliban have been accused of murdering surrendering forces and civilians. The UN human rights chief said there were reports of possible war crimes. - Security for embassies, foreign organisations - The Taliban have tried quickly to reassure foreign governments and organisations that their embassies, offices and personnel are safe -- one Russian diplomat said the situation was already better than under the previous administration. The Taliban, however, have a poor record when it comes to protecting foreign personnel and missions. In 1996, they entered a United Nations compound where former president Najibullah had been granted refuge, dragged him out to kill him and hang the body from a post. And two years later, when they captured the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, they raided the Iranian consulate, killing nine diplomats and a journalist. - No use of Afghan soil against other countries - A core point of the troop withdrawal deal Washington signed with the Taliban last year was that they will not allow militant groups to operate out of Afghanistan. US-led forces toppled the first Taliban regime because it had refused to give up Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The group has stressed that it is going to honour that commitment, reiterating after taking over that other nations will face no threats. However, a UN Security Council monitoring report released in June said the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remain close. - No more drugs - The Taliban have promised that they will end the narcotics industry in Afghanistan, one of the world's hubs for the production and trafficking of drugs such as heroin. It may take some doing, especially if their new government does not have the same access to financial reserves and foreign aid that have sustained Afghanistan's fragile economy for two decades. And despite their claims to the contrary, UN monitors say the illicit drugs industry has been one of the biggest sources of revenue for the Taliban, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, according to estimates published last year.
Afghanistan’s former women’s football captain Khalida Popal yesterday said worries about the safety of the country’s female players have left her unable to sleep since the Taliban returned to power. Popal, 34, was granted asylum in Denmark in 2016, and considers herself “privileged” not to have to now seek safe haven from the hardliners. The team which Popal helped create in 2007 is made up of foreign- and Afghanistan-based players, with the threat of reprisals against those still in the country high given their previous high-profile criticisms of the regime. Gunmen are already being sent house to house searching for “enemies”, she said, despite the group’s attempt to ease concerns of a return to brutal oppression. Her own family in the western city of Herat have already recounted a change, she said. “Women family members of mine that have been out in the street have either been told to turn round and go home and not go to school or been beaten,” she told AFP by phone from Copenhagen. But Popal, who is now the women’s team director, said the women footballers risk far worse. “I was one of the main people in the Afghan association who founded the women’s team with the purpose to stand together as women of Afghanistan and use football as an avenue of activism,” she said. “We wanted to give the message to the world and to the Taliban that we (women) are not weak, you may kill our sisters but we will show you we are with them. “These are young girls who went on social media and publicly said the Taliban was the enemy. “My players are now seeing that armed enemy outside their doors and windows and they are scared as to what will happen to them.” Popal described the situation as “heartbreaking” and said players were struggling to understand how they had been left by the pull-out of US-led international forces. “When they call me or send voice messages to me they are saying, ‘Why have they (the West) betrayed us? Why have politicians abandoned the women of Afghanistan? What have we done wrong?’” she said. With access to Kabul airport blocked and also unlikely the players would be accepted for immediate evacuation, Popal said help for them within the country is not evident either. “At the moment those players living in the country are moving from one spot to another,” she said. “The scary thing is nobody wants to give them protection because the Taliban are striking fear into them saying, ‘If you do not give us information and identify who are against us then you and your family will be killed’.” Popal said she faced sexism when she was finance officer for the national football association: some men refused to accept their pay cheques from her due to her being a woman. But she said that was nothing compared to life for women under the Taliban from 1996 until they were ousted after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. The Taliban said on Tuesday they would respect women’s rights and permit them to be educated and work, albeit under Shariah law. But Popal said those were “just empty, empty words”. Popal said it was hard to believe that history is repeating itself two decades on, describing it as “traumatising to see my childhood repeating before my eyes”. “I was a child when the Taliban took over and I was told not to go outside and play in the street or go to school which was burned down by the Taliban eventually. “When the Taliban started beating my father and threatening my family we left and for almost eight years we were in Pakistan refugee camps. “Then we went back to Afghanistan as there was hope of a new Afghanistan. “However, empty and fake promises were made and the country once again is left alone and back to square one, and women are without any protection.”