Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
August 18, 2021
Gunshots rang out in Kabul and some militants violently broke up a protest in eastern Afghanistan as foreign powers watch every action of the Taliban to see if it will live up to its promises of having left the group’s brutal human rights record behind.
Hundreds boarded planes and left the war-torn country on August 18 as U.S. and British troops oversaw a massive evacuation of people, many of whom helped U.S.-led foreign forces over two decades, after chaos earlier in the week forced the Kabul airport, the country’s only functioning port of exit, to temporarily close.
After seizing the capital, Kabul, following a blistering offensive that swept up cities and toppled the Western-backed government, the Taliban said on August 17 that it wanted peace and an inclusive government — within the values of Islam.
However, video reports showed some militants in the capital whipping people who were trying to make their way through massive crowds to get to the airport, while gunshots could be heard in the background.
A NATO security official told Reuters that 17 people were wounded on August 18 in a stampede at a gate to the airport.
The militants on August 18 also quashed a rare public show of dissent in the city of Jalalabad, where video footage showed militants firing shots and attacking dozens of people who had gathered in support of the black, red, and green Afghan national flag a day before Afghanistan’s Independence Day, which commemorates the end of British rule in 1919.
A reporter for a local news agency said he and a TV cameraman from another agency were beaten by the Taliban as they tried to cover the unrest.
Reuters quoted witnesses as saying three people were killed in the violence. The agency said the deaths — which could not be verified — took place when the marchers tried to install Afghanistan’s flag at a square. AP reported that one person was killed and six were wounded in Jalalabad.
The insurgents have raised their own flag — a white banner with a black “shahada,” or statement of faith, on it — in the territories they have seized.
The reports came after some people were reportedly beaten by militants as they tried to reach the airport, and news that the Taliban have blown up the statue of a Shi’ite militia leader who fought against them during the civil war in the 1990s, sowed further doubt about their true intentions.
“We will judge this regime based on the choices it makes, and by its actions rather than by its words, on its attitude to terrorism, to crime and narcotics, as well as humanitarian access, and the rights of girls to receive an education,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament, which was recalled on August 18 from its summer break to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
The United States has sent military reinforcements to protect the evacuation of foreigners and Afghan civilians, with troop numbers swelling to 4,000 on August 17 after the airport was temporarily closed because thousands of Afghans flooded the airfield in a panic to escape the Taliban.
In Kabul, there have been signs of life cautiously resuming, with Kabul-based journalist Ali Latifi saying early in the day that he saw stores and restaurants reopening.
“Crowds are back (only a few dozen women, though), cars and generators are back and much fewer Talibs out on the streets as the last 48 hrs,” he tweeted.
Another journalist said that Kabul’s “famous ice cream carts started playing their loud music again this morning.”
“In the last 20 years they were often misused for IEDs, suicide attacks in Deh Mazang, or as a front for Taliban surveillance. But today, just ice cream,” Bilal Sarwary wrote on Twitter.
As Afghanistan adjusts to its new reality, Western powers face the decision whether to deal with the Islamist insurgents they had fought for nearly 20 years.
A senior member of the movement told Reuters on August 18 that the Taliban leaders will show themselves to the world, unlike during the past two decades when its leaders had lived largely in secret.
“Slowly, gradually, the world will see all our leaders, there will be no shadow of secrecy,” said the Taliban member, who declined to be identified.
A member of the Taliban political office in Qatar, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwah, said that leaders of the group were in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar to discuss the formation of an internationally acceptable government for Afghanistan.
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kandahar on August 17 from Qatar, where he has spent months leading talks with the United States and then Afghan peace negotiators.
The Taliban has said it had been in touch with Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, former President Hamid Karzai; as well as Gulbudin Hekmatyar, leader of Hizb-e Islami political and paramilitary group.
A member of the Taliban administration who declined to be identified said on August 18 that a senior leader of the Haqqani network militant group, Anas Haqqani, had met with Karzai, who was accompanied by Abdullah. He did not provide further details.
The Haqqani network is linked to the Taliban. It has been accused in recent years of some of the most deadly militant attacks in Afghanistan.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the EU was suspending payments of development assistance to Afghanistan “until we clarify the situation” with Taliban leaders, warning that the group must respect UN Security Council resolutions and human rights to earn access to funds.
That move comes after the United States decided to freeze Afghan central bank reserves in U.S. accounts, depriving the Taliban of billions of dollars.
Ajmal Ahmaty, the bank’s acting governor who has now fled Kabul, said on August 18 that the country had some $9 billion in reserves abroad and not in physical cash inside the country.
Ahmaty wrote on Twitter that the majority of that — some $7 billion — was being held in U.S. Federal Reserve bonds, assets, and gold.
The Taliban is on the U.S. sanctions list, meaning they are likely to have difficulty accessing external funds unless Washington and its allies recognize the new government.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and is highly dependent on foreign aid, which has covered about three-quarters of the government budget, according to the World Bank.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Johnson said they had agreed to hold a virtual meeting of Group of Seven leaders next week to discuss a common approach to Afghanistan.
The head of the British military, meanwhile, said on August 18 that the world may discover that the insurgents cast as militants by the West for decades have become “more reasonable” than when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, but others were doubtful.
“They’ve taken power by force and they’re now desperate for international recognition, from China, from Russia, and the West, they need that. So of course they’re going to use these charming words about equal opportunities for women,” Charlie Herbert, a former British Army major general who served in Afghanistan, told Sky News.
The British government says it is planning to resettle up to 20,000 Afghan refugees in Britain, with an initial target of resettling 5,000 within the first year.
The new plan is on top of the existing scheme for interpreters and other staff who have worked for Britain. Some 5,000 Afghans and family members are expected to benefit from that policy.
As Biden faces increased criticism at home that the United States’ reputation as a global power had been badly tarnished, a government watchdog painted a bleak portrait of two decades of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.
In a report published late on August 17, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction concluded that the U.S. intervention in the war-torn country had “bright spots,” such as lower child-mortality rates, increases in per capita gross domestic product, and increased literacy rates.
But it also questioned whether these gains were “commensurate” with the $145 billion spent over the past 20 years to try to rebuild Afghanistan to be a sustainable democracy after U.S. troops left.
Among the areas of failure identified in the report, administrations consistently “underestimated” the time required to rebuild the country and “misunderstood” its context.
With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, the BBC, and dpa
This story also includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.
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