Afghanistan’s international airport has been overrun by desperate Afghans seeking to escape Taliban rule, leading to several deaths as US marines sought to hold back the crowds after the Islamist militants took over Kabul.
A foreign official monitoring evacuation flights from the city said US marines had fired shots, while other Afghans fell to their deaths after clinging to the wheels of planes that were taking off. At least five people were reported to have died.
Images from the airport showed US gunships buzzing groups gathered on the runway to enable military planes filled with US and foreign nationals to take off. Kabul’s airport, which had operated normally until Monday, is now closed to civilian flights.
“There is absolute chaos,” the official said. “Only US military planes are taking off and landing. The civilian part of the tarmac is completely shut – Afghans are clinging on to the tyres of the aircraft that are taking off. US marine helicopters are being used to clear the tarmac fast before the take-off can be executed.”
The mayhem reflects the pervasive fear and panic among Afghans as they brace for life under the rule of the Islamist Taliban after it drove the US-backed government of Ashraf Ghani from power over the weekend.
Afghans crowd at Kabul airport. Photograph: Shakib Rahmani/AFP via Getty Images
When the Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 it enforced a literalist interpretation of Islamic law, carrying out public executions, stoning women accused of adultery and cutting off the hands of accused thieves. It was subsequently driven from power by a US-led invasion following the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001.
The Taliban is now seeking to reassure Afghans that it has moderated its approach, and Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, publicly urged his fighters to show “humility” following their virtually bloodless seizure of the city on Sunday.
“We reached a victory that wasn’t expected,” he said in a video message from Qatar. “We should show humility in front of Allah. Now, it’s about how we serve and secure our people and ensure their future and good life to the best of our ability.”
Mullah Baradar added that the Taliban was negotiating with other Afghan political leaders over forming “an open, inclusive Islamic government”.
However, many Afghans – particularly educated women – remain intensely anxious. “The fear just sits inside your chest like a black bird. It opens its wings and you can’t breathe,” Muska Dastageer, a political-science professor at the American University of Afghanistan, wrote on Twitter early on Monday morning.
Away from the airport, the streets of Kabul were largely quiet on Monday. Schools, government offices, colleges, banks, private offices and other businesses were all shut. Only grocery stores and food stalls remained open.
Taliban fighters stand guard along a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on Monday. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images
“We are staying home for now, but it feels like a war situation,” said a Kabul-based university professor. “The Taliban has not yet clarified what they are going to do and what their policies will be towards women and schools. There is an overwhelming fear.”
Kobra Balooch, who runs the Afghanistan Civil Society Forum Organisation, said many Afghans were running short of cash because they “never expected Kabul to collapse that quickly. But Afghan people . . . have the experience of sudden chaos and usually hoard foodstuffs.”
TV channels had also stopped broadcasting Turkish and Indian soap operas and replaced them with religious programmes. “Television directors are so scared of any consequences if they go on broadcasting those series,” Balooch said.
The Taliban’s capture of Kabul followed a sweeping offensive that saw the Islamist group overrun most of the country, facing little armed resistance, as many Afghan troops opted to surrender peacefully rather than fight for an unpopular leader.
Analysts said many Afghan troops had calculated that Mr Ghani’s exit was imminent once the US troops were withdrawn and were unwilling to die for a failing cause.
Taliban fighters in the presidential palce in Kabul on Sunday night. Photograph: Zabi Karimi/AP
Mr Ghani, a former World Bank official, had resisted pressure to resign and initiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. He fled the country to an undisclosed location as an assault on the capital appeared imminent.
Taliban fighters took control of the empty presidential palace and abandoned police posts in the capital without a struggle on Sunday. The Taliban has also reportedly freed thousands of prison inmates, many of them hardcore Islamist fighters associated with various militant groups.
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, on Monday confirmed to Sky News that the Taliban was in control, and said the UK government was working through a third country “to seek assurances from the Taliban to protect our people and indeed the people we’re trying to work to get out.”
The US currently has almost 6,000 troops in Kabul but military officials said their mission is only to facilitate the safe and rapid evacuation of US civilians, other foreign nationals and some Afghan allies.
Ned Price, US state department spokesman, said all embassy personnel had been moved out of Kabul and were congregated at the airport, where a de facto embassy had been established. - Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021