The Taliban’s top political leader has returned to Kabul, cementing the militant group’s grip on the city, as the U.S. Embassy on Saturday warned of security threats outside the capital’s crowd-ringed airport, the only U.S. redoubt remaining in all Afghanistan.
The arrival in the capital of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, confirmed Saturday by pro-Taliban officials, signaled that nearly a week after overrunning Kabul and sending the country’s president into exile, the Islamist insurgent group is moving to formalize the composition of a new government of what it calls the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The group, known for its brutal rule a generation ago, has urged Afghans not to flee, saying they have nothing to fear. But tens of thousands of people are seeking to get out of the country, converging on the capital’s airport in numbers so large that the facility has become both bunker and bottleneck.
President Joe Biden huddled Saturday morning with members of his national security team, the White House said, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, including the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group, particularly to the throngs outside the airport.
Overnight, entrances to the airfield were closed as U.S. and other Western diplomats inside struggled to deal with a huge backlog of Afghans who either aided in the American-led war effort, or are now considered at risk because of work with groups advocating causes such as women’s rights.
The alert distributed Saturday by the U.S. Embassy advised citizens “to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time” unless individually instructed to come. That guidance was tied to what were described as “potential security threats outside the gates.”
U.S. officials have cited Islamic State as among possible attackers, a threat that national security advisor Jake Sullivan has said the U.S. is “laser-focused” on countering. In addition, those braving the increasingly dangerous crush outside the gates have encountered intimidation and beating by Taliban fighters manning the barricades.
The latest figures from the Pentagon reflected the scope of the struggle to airlift out the thousands who want to leave. Military officials said Saturday morning that in the past 24 hours about 3,800 civilians had departed on about six C-17 military cargo planes and 32 charter flights, a slowdown from the previous day.
Part of the problem is finding places for all those people to go once safely out of Afghanistan. The Biden administration has been working to finalize agreements with countries willing to act as transit hubs for Afghan evacuees.
In Kabul, Taliban leaders have indicated no new government will be formally announced until after the Aug. 31 deadline for the departure of American troops has passed. Biden has left open the possibility of extending the presence of about 6,000 soldiers and U.S. Marines supporting the massive U.S.-overseen airlift, but said it could not be open-ended.
In a sign of willingness to forge a working relationship with the Taliban rulers, former President Hamid Karzai, the country’s first leader after the previous Taliban rule ended in 2001, and Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the deposed government, met Saturday with the group’s acting governor of Kabul. Abdullah tweeted afterward that the top priority was to protect the “life, property & dignity” of the capital’s residents.
Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban movement who is now being eyed as a possible new president, was expected to hold talks soon with Karzai and other political figures who have been urging the Taliban to include some representation from outside the militant group in the new leadership structure.
Taliban officials in recent days have launched an all-out public-relations campaign, seeking to assure Afghans and a watching world that the group has moved on from its harshly repressive methods of a generation ago, which included public executions, draconian punishments for infractions like stealing, and the erasure of women from public life.
Seeking to portray itself as a responsible steward of the country of 38 million people, the Taliban has said it will not seek vengeance on those who have opposed it. But human rights groups have already documented instances of atrocities and reprisal attacks against former government officials and members of the vanquished Afghan security forces, as well as ethnic minorities.
Part of that Taliban effort to win respectability has been reassurances offered to journalists, particularly the foreign press. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted Saturday that a committee has been set up to address “media problems” in Kabul, but on the streets of Kabul, individual fighters have sometimes violently set upon Western reporters.
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