Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
August 19, 2021
Casualties were reported as Afghan demonstrators waving the national flag took to the streets of several cities to mark the country’s Independence Day in the first major display of popular opposition to the Taliban, a day after at least one person was killed when the hard-line Islamist militants cracked down on a similar demonstration.
Taliban leaders have said they want peace and an inclusive government — within the values of Islam — while vowing no revenge against opponents – since seizing control of Kabul on August 15, following a blitz offensive that saw a string of cities fall in quick succession to the fundamentalist group.
But a witness told Reuters on August 19 that Taliban fighters fired on demonstrators waving the Afghan national tricolor at an Independence Day rally, killing several people.
It was not clear whether the casualties came from the shooting or from the stampede it triggered.
“Hundreds of people came out on the streets,” witness Mohammed Salim said from Asadabad, the capital of the eastern province of Kunar. “At first I was scared and didn’t want to go but when I saw one of my neighbors joined in I took out the flag I have at home.”
Protests were also reported in the eastern city of Jalalabad and a district of Paktia Province, but there were no reports of violence.
The previous day, at least one person was killed during anti-Taliban protests in Jalalabad after the militants attacked demonstrators who were reportedly attempting to lower the group’s banner and replace it with the Afghan flag.
The Islamist militants marked Independence Day, which commemorates Afghanistan’s 1919 independence from British control, by issuing a statement declaring that “our jihadi resistance forced another arrogant power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan.”
First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who is trying to rally opposition to the Taliban, expressed support for the protests, saying on Twitter: “Salute those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation.”
Saleh said earlier this week that he has remained in Afghanistan and was the “legitimate caretaker president” after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban captured Kabul. Ghani resurfaced in the United Arab Emirates on August 18, reiterating that he had fled to prevent bloodshed.
Overall, streets in the capital were mainly calm on August 19, with armed fighters roaming Kabul on foot and in vehicles, as businesses started to reopen. Banks and government offices remain closed, however.
But reports that Taliban fighters are manning checkpoints around Kabul’s airport and impeding Afghans from reaching the airfield have sparked panic among some who fear they won’t be allowed to leave the country even as foreign governments ramp up evacuations. Some parents reportedly tried pushing small children over the airport fence in the hopes someone would take care of them.
A total of 12 people have been killed in and around the airport in recent days, Taliban and NATO officials said.
In his first interview since the Taliban swept into Kabul, U.S. President Joe Biden said on August 18 that the militants were cooperating in helping get Americans and allied countries’ citizens out of the country, but that “we’re having some more difficulty” in evacuating Afghan citizens who helped the international mission and others considered at risk under Taliban rule.
Biden told ABC News that U.S. forces could remain in Kabul beyond the August 31 deadline if necessary to evacuate American citizens.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Washington expects the Taliban to “allow all American citizens, all third-country nationals, and all Afghans who wish to leave to do so safely and without harassment,” but the Pentagon has noted that U.S. troops do not have the capability to help people reach Kabul airport to be evacuated because the forces are focused on securing the airfield.
Turkey had offered to control and run the airport following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but the swift Taliban takeover has cast doubt on the plan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country still maintained its intention to operate the facility, and that Ankara was “open to any cooperation” with the Taliban.
“With the Taliban maintaining control over the country, a new picture appeared before us,” he said in a television address. “Now we are making our plans according to these new realities.”
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on August 19 that about 100 EU staff and 400 Afghans working with the bloc and their families had been evacuated. He also said hundreds more were still waiting to leave.
Addressing the European Parliament, he described the developments in Afghanistan as “a catastrophe for the Afghan people, for the Western values and credibility, and for the developing of international relations.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and other UN agencies accredited in Afghanistan have started to temporarily relocate to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, despite Taliban pledges to protect diplomatic staff and UN personnel as part of a broader public relations bid to reshape its image and avoid international isolation.
The UN and its agencies have about 3,000 Afghan employees, in addition to international staff.
As Western powers face the decision whether to deal with the Islamist insurgents they had fought for nearly 20 years, the International Monetary Fund on August 18 suspended Afghanistan’s access to $440 million in monetary reserves — a move pushed for by the U.S. Treasury to prevent funds falling into Taliban hands.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace expressed concerns on August 19 that the events in Afghanistan will be perceived as Western weakness by adversaries such as Russia.
“That is something we should all worry about: if the West is seen not to have resolve and it fractures, then our adversaries like Russia find that encouraging,” Wallace said.
“Around the world, Islamists will see what they will view as a victory and that will inspire other terrorists,” he also said.
Asked about footage of a child being passed over a wall to Western soldiers at Kabul airport, Wallace said that Britain is unable to evacuate unaccompanied children from Afghanistan.
“You will find as you see in the footage…the child was taken – that will be because the family will be taken as well.”
With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters, and the BBC