Taleban co-founder in Afghan capital as evacuation scramble continues

Hoping to flee the country, people gather near the airport in Kabul, on Aug. 21, 2021.
Hoping to flee the country, people gather near the airport in Kabul, on Aug. 21, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (AFP) - Taleban leaders gathered in the Afghan capital on Saturday (Aug 21) to begin mapping out an "inclusive government", as thousands scrambled to leave the country via a chaotic evacuation dubbed one of the most difficult airlifts in history.

A senior Taleban official told AFP that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar - who co-founded the group - would meet Islamic leaders, elders and politicians in the coming days, stirring faint hope they may hold good on pledges to rule differently this time around.

But the gathering also included top officials from the Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist organisation with million-dollar bounties on its leadership.

The Panjshir Valley remains the only holdout against the Taleban after the hardline Islamists took control of Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, the son of the late, famed anti-Taleban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud had called for a new resistance.

But on Saturday, pro-Taleban social media feeds posted a video of Khalil Haqqani of the Haqqani network claiming Massoud's son had "declared allegiance" to the new Islamic emirate.

There has been no statement from Massoud.

Six days after the Taleban swept to power, the flow of people trying to flee continued to overwhelm the international community.

Roads leading to Kabul airport were choked with traffic. Families hoping for a miracle escape crowded between the barbed-wire surrounds of an unofficial no man's land separating the Taleban from US troops and remnants of an Afghan special forces brigade helping them.

Video of a US soldier lifting a baby over a wall at Kabul airport offered the latest imagery of the utter despair, following horror footage of people hanging onto the outside of departing planes.

"Please, please, please help me... where should I go, what should I do," one man, who said he worked for the US embassy in the mid-2000s, wrote on a WhatsApp group for people to share information on how to get out.

Thousands of US soldiers are at the airport trying to shepherd foreigners and Afghans onto flights, but President Joe Biden admitted the troop presence offered no guarantees of safe passage.

"This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history," he said.

"I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or... that it will be without risk of loss."

Evacuation deadline

US military helicopters were deployed to rescue more than 150 Americans unable to reach the airport on Friday morning, an official in Washington said.

It was the first report of US forces going beyond the airport to help people seeking evacuation.

On Saturday, the US embassy issued a fresh warning telling Americans not to try to reach the airport unless they received specific instructions from a government representative.

Biden had set a deadline of Aug 31 to completely withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, but he flagged this could be extended for the airlifts.

About 13,000 people have left on American military aircraft, the White House said. Thousands more have fled on other foreign military flights.

US diminished

The crisis has cast another shadow over the superpower status of the United States and its ability to help allies.

The Taleban swept into Kabul last week, ending two decades of war.

Biden and US allies were stunned at how quickly the Taleban was able to rout government forces, who surrendered en masse.

The Taleban has promised "positively different" rule from their 1996-2001 stint in power, which was infamous for an ultra-fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.

Women were excluded from public life, girls banned from school and people stoned to death for adultery.

They have vowed not to seek revenge, promising a general amnesty for anyone who worked with the US-backed government.

But an intelligence document for the United Nations said militants were going door-to-door hunting former government officials and those who worked with US and Nato forces.

While searching for a Deutsche Welle journalist, the Taleban shot dead his uncle, the German public broadcaster reported.

Collective pride

At the first Friday prayers since the Taleban's return to power, imams and guest speakers celebrated the defeat of the United States.

At one Kabul mosque, gunmen flanked a cleric as he delivered a fiery speech recounting how Afghans defeated the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States.

At another mosque, an imam referenced the tragic scenes at the airport, describing those trying to flee as not having strong enough religious convictions.

"Those with weak faith are running after or hanging from American planes," he said.

"They should stay and build their country."