Protests against the Taliban broke out in several Afghan cities Wednesday, with the militants struggling to contain the uprisings even as they were consolidating power in Kabul.
The tenuous, fluid situation in the capital was reflected in the fresh chaos that broke out outside Kabul‘s only functioning international airport, where Taliban fighters clashed with throngs of desperate Afghans seeking access to U.S. and allied military evacuation flights.
With questions swirling around the rapid dissolution of U.S.-trained Afghan security forces, there were signs of life among the Northern Alliance, a group of armed rebels that allied with American forces invading Afghanistan in 2001.
The developments seemed to underscore a new normal of unease and uncertainty under Taliban rule. On Tuesday, the militant group’s leaders went on a publicity blitz in Kabul calling for calm and promising “amnesty” for Afghans who worked with the U.S.-aligned government.
Uncertainty over the Taliban‘s assurances hung heavily over talks in Kabul on Wednesday between the militants and several former senior officials of the fallen Afghan government. Among them were former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who headed months of failed reconciliation talks with the militants.
Sources close to Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah said the two met Wednesday with Anas Haqqani, a senior leader in a powerful Taliban faction called the Haqqani Network. That network, which allied with the U.S. during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, was blamed for a series of devastating suicide attacks during the U.S. war.
The direction of the talks is unclear. Taliban leaders say the goal is to form an “inclusive, Islamic government,” but the group’s leadership and real motivations remain obscure. Fears are mounting that the group’s true intention is to remake the hard-line authoritarian theocracy and Islamist police state it wielded over Afghans the last time it controlled Kabul, before the U.S. invasion two decades ago.
Such fears have driven the Biden administration to freeze Afghan government accounts in the United States and halt direct aid payments to the government in Kabul. The administration has also kept in place the State Department’s designation of the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization, which could complicate any foreign aid flows to Kabul.
The Biden administration’s mismanagement of the U.S. military pullout came under deeper scrutiny in Washington. A clutch of influential Republicans is now demanding answers to why the Taliban were able to sack Kabul so easily and why chaos involving fleeing Afghans was allowed to unfold.
Those questions have swirled among Republican and even some Democratic members since Monday. Reps Michael T. McCaul of Texas, Devin Nunes of California and Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs, intelligence and Armed Services committees, asserted in a letter to the White House that the “disaster that is now unfolding” in Afghanistan was avoidable.
“For months, your administration ignored assessments and dire warnings by your military and intelligence community, ignored repeated congressional requests for details regarding contingency planning [and] ignored calls by Afghan partners,” the lawmakers wrote. They vented frustration that Mr. Biden had set an arbitrary, unrealistic timeline for the U.S. troop withdrawal that paved the way for an easy Taliban takeover of Kabul.
The Pentagon’s role has also come under increasing scrutiny.
The Air Force has opened a formal review of what led a C-17 transport aircraft to take off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Monday with people clinging to its landing gear, resulting in a scene of Afghan civilians falling to their deaths.
With video of those deaths watched around the world, the Air Force office of special investigations is conducting a “thorough” examination. The C-17 had been sent to deliver cargo to U.S. forces securing the airport the day after Kabul fell.
An Air Force statement Tuesday said human remains were discovered in the wheel well of the C-17 once it returned from Kabul to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The service said the C-17 had been surrounded on the runway in Kabul before its crew was able to offload the plane’s cargo. Throngs of Afghans flooded the tarmac in a scene of panic and chaos before the C-17 landed.
The scene inside the Kabul airport was far calmer Wednesday after a surge of more than 4,000 U.S. Marines restored order to the tarmac and began a massive evacuation mission. However, violence erupted as Taliban fighters controlling the streets around the airport clashed with Afghans desperate to gain access to evacuation flights.
The Pentagon has said the goal is to move as many as 9,000 passengers a day out of Kabul. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has said the Biden administration set a deadline of Aug. 31 to complete the evacuation amid uncertainty over the extent to which the Taliban may seek to violently halt the operation.
Some 18 American C-17s took off from the airport Tuesday and Wednesday with about 2,000 passengers, of which 325 were U.S. citizens. The others were Afghan civilians and some NATO personnel.
Protesting Taliban rule
The situation around the airport grew tense as Afghans in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Khost held marches and carried the national flag that the U.S.-aligned government in the capital flew before the Taliban takeover.
Although the protests were scattered and did not necessarily indicate a national uprising, they signaled the first serious pushback against the Taliban since the militants retook control of Kabul.
The rallies Wednesday in Nangarhar and Khost devolved into clashes between protesters and Taliban fighters, according to Afghanistan’s Tolo news outlet. Tolo reported that at least one demonstrator was killed in the northeastern city of Jalalabad, near the center of Nangarhar province.
Other reports said protesters were angry at Taliban efforts to replace the national flag. The Associated Press said dozens of Afghans had gathered in Jalalabad and a nearby market town to raise the tricolor national flag a day before Afghanistan’s Independence Day, commemorating the 1919 treaty that ended British rule.
The demonstrators lowered the Taliban flag, a white banner with an Islamic inscription that the militants raised in the areas they captured in recent weeks.
Video footage circulating online showed Taliban fighters firing into the air and attacking people with batons to disperse the crowd in Jalalabad. Babrak Amirzada, a reporter for a local news agency, said the Taliban beat him and a TV cameraman from another agency.
The incidents undercut an image of moderation that some Taliban leaders have been trying to project since seizing control and forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee to the United Arab Emirates.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid held a press conference in the Afghan capital Tuesday to assert that the group would honor women’s rights, albeit within the norms of what the Taliban define as Islamic law.
Mr. Mujahid provided few details but said the Taliban were hoping to allow private media to “remain independent” as long as they don’t “work against national values.”
Although the Taliban insisted they would respect human rights, unlike they did during their previously draconian rule, many Afghans were hiding at home or trying to flee the country, fearful of abuses by the loosely controlled militant organization.
Civil war in the making?
Many people have expressed dread that the two-decade Western experiment to remake Afghanistan will not survive the resurgent Taliban, who took control of the country in just days.
The developments Wednesday raised questions about the prospect of a civil war between largely Pashtun Taliban and anti-Taliban ethnic groups and warlords.
Mr. Ghani’s hasty departure has underscored the fractured nation, where there appears to be no organized opposition to the militants.
However, videos circulating Wednesday from the Panjshir Valley north of the Afghan capital, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance, appeared to show potential opposition figures gathering. That area is in the only province that has not fallen to the Taliban.
Those figures include members of the deposed government — Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who asserted on Twitter that he is the country’s rightful president, and Defense Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi — along with Ahmad Massoud, a son of slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, Mr. Massoud asked for weapons and aid to fight the Taliban.
“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” he wrote. “The Taliban is not a problem for the Afghan people alone. Under Taliban control, Afghanistan will without doubt become Ground Zero of radical Islamist terrorism; plots against democracies will be hatched here once again.”
• Joseph Clark and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.