- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2021

A confidential United Nations assessment is warning that the Taliban are intensifying efforts to hunt down Afghans who worked with American and NATO forces over the past two decades and that the militants have threatened to kill or arrest their family members if the people sought cannot be found.

The sobering report circulating among U.N. officials this week became public Thursday as the Taliban‘s leaders sought to cement their rule by formally announcing the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” even as they faced persistent pockets of resistance and protests in Kabul and other Afghan cities.

Clashes and chaos continued Thursday around Kabul‘s only international airport, where Taliban fighters used gunfire at traffic chokepoints to halt throngs of Afghans desperately trying to access a U.S. military-led evacuation in its fourth day.

Unease over the future of Afghanistan was further elevated by warnings from regional experts that the Taliban will almost certainly provide a haven again for al Qaeda and other jihadi groups and that dire food shortages are likely to envelop Afghanistan during the coming months while the international community attempts to isolate the Taliban.

Republicans in Washington sharpened their criticism of the Biden administration. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas led the charge by asserting that Taliban “goons” were beating and stripping documents from people trying to escape via the airport, which remains under the control of U.S. military forces.

President Biden, facing growing criticism of how he handled the American withdrawal, sent some 4,500 U.S. troops back to Afghanistan since the Taliban seized Kabul on Sunday to coordinate the evacuation mission. But the troops are behind a strict fence line at the airport and have no control over activity on the streets of the capital just beyond the perimeter.

“It is total violent chaos outside of the airport, contrary to Joe Biden, who is … claiming that the Taliban is cooperating with us,” Mr. Cotton said on Fox News. “My office has been in touch with dozens of people on the ground outside the airport, where Taliban are beating people indiscriminately, taking their passports, taking their visa papers.

“All of this is happening just a few yards away from the gates, and American soldiers are not allowed to enter beyond that perimeter to try to secure American citizens who are making their way through these crowds of Taliban goons to get into the airport,” he said.

Although Mr. Biden has said no Americans will be left behind in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged to reporters Wednesday that troop levels deployed to operate the airport aren’t enough to clear a path for U.S. citizens trying to access evacuation flights.

Others have blamed the situation on the Biden administration’s mishandling of the U.S. troop withdrawal over recent weeks. Mr. Biden, in an interview this week with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, downplayed problems with the withdrawal. He said there was no way the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan could have been drawn down “without chaos ensuing.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, responded with outrage Thursday. “Mr. President, wake up and lead,” the senator said in a statement. “Naively hoping the Taliban gives Americans and our allies safe passage to Kabul’s airport is not a plan — it’s a hostage situation. We have better options. Give American troops the power to push back the airport perimeter and create safe, American-controlled corridors to the airport. We cannot wait for Americans to find their own way. Go get them. It’s the duty of the commander-in-chief.”

Messy dynamic

It’s a messy dynamic that now coincides with soaring doubts about the long-term intentions of the new Taliban leaders in Kabul, who have launched a major charm offensive to convince the international community that — unlike the last time they were in power — “amnesty” will be given to Afghans who worked against the Islamist militants and that women’s rights will be respected.

The U.N. document that became public Thursday sharply challenged the Taliban‘s public claims. The document was produced by the Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, a private intelligence firm that advises U.N. agencies. It was first reported Thursday by The New York Times but began circulating a day earlier among U.N. officials.

The confidential document reportedly cites reports of Taliban fighters going door to door and “arresting and/or threatening to kill or arrest family members of target individuals unless they surrender themselves to the Taliban.”

Widespread concerns remain in Washington and in the international community that the Taliban, who captured Kabul with almost no resistance from the U.S.- and NATO-trained Afghan security forces, will soon reimpose their harsh brand of Islamist rule over Afghanistan.

The analysis also cited reports that the Taliban had a list of people they wanted to question and punish — and their locations — and that the militant group would target crowds of Afghans outside the airport. Members of the Afghan military and the police, as well as people who worked for investigative units of the toppled government, were particularly at risk, the document warned.

The report reproduced a letter dated Aug. 16 from the Taliban to an unidentified counterterrorism official in Afghanistan who worked with U.S. and British officials and then went into hiding before the insurgents came to the official’s apartment. The letter, according to The Times, instructed the official to report to the Military and Intelligence Commission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Kabul. If not, the letter warned, the official’s family members “will be treated based on Shariah law.”

A haven for terrorists?

Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. who heads the South and Central Asia program at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said that despite previous assurances, there is little question that the Taliban will also provide a haven in Afghanistan for the al Qaeda terrorist group in the days to come. Al Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks from an Afghan sanctuary, prompting the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the first Taliban government.

Although Taliban leaders vowed during negotiations with the Trump administration last year to no longer provide a haven for Islamic extremists and terrorists if U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Mr. Haqqani told The Washington Times in an interview that the militants used “very precise” language when they made such assurances.

“They said things like, ‘We will not allow an attack on another country from our soil,’” Mr. Haqqani said. “That is not the same thing as saying that fellow Muslims who have conducted an attack in another country will not be allowed to have refuge with us. It’s a huge difference … in the argument.”

Mr. Haqqani said partisan U.S. bickering over who is to blame for the Taliban takeover is counterproductive. He argued that the seeds for the current situation in Kabul were planted years ago.

“There are mistakes that were made in the last 20 days, there were mistakes that were made in the last two years, and then there are mistakes that were made over 20 years,” the former ambassador said. He noted that U.S. officials had been publicly signaling their desire to get out of Afghanistan for well over a decade.

“How could you win a war when for 16 of the 20 years you were discussing how to withdraw?” Mr. Haqqani said. “It signaled to your enemy that he just had to wait you out. It also created an inherent insecurity among your allies.”

Anti-Taliban protests spread

Tension between the Taliban and Afghan citizens continued to spiral on Thursday. Anti-Taliban protests grew for a second day and spread to the streets of Kabul for the first time since the militant group seized the country’s capital,

Crowds in Kabul gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s independence from British control more than a century ago, but the celebrations quickly turned into outbursts of defiance against the Taliban rule.

Videos circulating online showed demonstrators waving the Afghan national flag. The Associated Press reported that a procession of cars and people near Kabul’s airport carried long black, red and green banners in honor of the Afghan flag. Protesters in other cities reportedly tore down Taliban flags.

Taliban commanders have struggled to contain the protests. Reports said demonstrators were killed in at least one city, although it was not clear whether the deaths resulted from a crackdown by Taliban fighters or a stampede caused by tense crowds.

Reuters reported that several people were killed in Asadabad, the capital of the eastern province of Kunar.

“Hundreds of people came out on the streets. … 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,” Mohammed Salim, a witness in Asadabad, told the news service. “Several people were killed and injured in the stampede and firing by the Taliban.”

Fears are soaring that the group is preparing to bring back the hard-line Islamist government and theocratic police state it imposed on Afghans during its reign from 1996 to 2001, before U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan.

The demonstrations were a remarkable show of defiance after the Taliban fighters violently dispersed a protest Wednesday. At that rally, in the eastern city of Jalalabad, demonstrators lowered the Taliban’s flag and replaced it with Afghanistan’s tricolor. At least one person was killed.

Meanwhile, opposition figures gathering in the last area of the country not under Taliban rule talked about launching an armed resistance under the banner of the Northern Alliance, which provided key military support to the U.S. during the 2001 invasion.

The Taliban have offered no specifics on how they will lead, other than to say they will be guided by Shariah, or Islamic, law. They are in talks with senior officials of previous Afghan governments, but they face an increasingly precarious situation and a shortage of governmental management experience in their ranks.

“A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions is unfolding before our eyes,” said Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the head of the U.N. World Food Program in Afghanistan.

Beyond the difficulties of bringing food to a landlocked nation dependent on imports, she said, drought has claimed 40% of the country’s expected annual crop. Many who fled the Taliban advance now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul.

“This is really Afghanistan’s hour of greatest need, and we urge the international community to stand by the Afghan people at this time,” Ms. McGroarty said.

• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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