Afghanistan Analysts Network
Thousands of Afghans gather at Kabul airport after the Taleban took control of Kabul following former President Ashraf Ghani’s departure. Photo: AFP, 16 August 2021.
In Kabul, rumours abounded in the morning that the Taleban had arrived on the city’s outskirts and were possibly entering the capital, which amplified the frenzy of people trying to obtain passports, get their document certified or reach the airport. There were continuous helicopters overhead ferrying people from the various embassies to the aircraft waiting to evacuate them. However, as the day wore on, the outright panic within the city subsided—except for at the airport—after both the Taleban spokesman and the acting interior minister, in seemingly coordinated messages, assured the public that the city would not be attacked, its security would be safeguarded and that they were working towards a peaceful transition.
There was scattered footage of groups with Taleban flags celebrating on the city’s outskirts, but they were unarmed and may have been supporters rather than fighters. As shops, offices and banks closed, most people went home to wait for what might happen.
During the afternoon, reports emerged of an interim government possibly led by former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, now a professor at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. and a US citizen, with a (largely undeserved) reputation for being a strong and decisive leader. (Jalali has, in the meantime, denied that he was ever in the running for Afghanistan’s top job). At any rate, this turned out to be a non-starter after the Taleban were said to have insisted that the group’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, should lead the government and finally, reportedly, declared that they had no interest in a shared interim government and were simply going to rule by themselves.
It is not clear to what extent these talks actually took place or were ever serious, but what is clear is that, somewhere in the middle of all of this, president Ghani and his main confidantes, including Hamdullah Mohib and Fazl Fazly, left the country. Senior government officials who had stood by Ghani were furious. In a measured but pointed live video posted on Facebook, Dr Abdullah Abdullah said that God would judge “the former president” (video here), while Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi cursed Ghani in a tweet, saying that he “tied our hands behind our back and sold us.” His current whereabouts are unknown. Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who had been quiet for the entire day, finally resurfaced online on Sunday evening, saying he would never be “under one ceiling with the Taleban.” Social media posts suggest that he is in Panjshir, one of the few provinces not yet under full Taleban control. Like Saleh, Mohammadi and Ahmad Massoud, son of slain Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, indicated that they are ready to launch a resistance. It remains to be seen whether there will be much appetite in the country to restart a war, now that it seems to have finally finished, including among those who are not happy with who won it.
As the police force in Kabul had largely melted away during the day, and there was no one left to speak to on the government side, the Taleban started moving into the city. As night fell, the Taleban announced that they would take over the abandoned security posts in the city and encouraged the people not to be alarmed. By that time, the streets had been deserted for hours. To fill the vacuum, some of the remaining politicians engaged in a game of repositioning.
Former president Hamid Karzai, Ghani’s predecessor, appeared on video in a garden with his three daughters and announced he was staying in Afghanistan. Earlier in the day, he had introduced a three-person coordinating council consisting of himself, Dr Abdullah and Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (see also this video), presumably to continue negotiations with the Taleban (who do not seem to have taken him up on the offer, although the three men have met, or will meet, with Mir Khan Mutaqi, head of the Invitation, Guidance and Recruitment committee, who has now arrived in Kabul).
Elsewhere in the city, former MP Humayun Humayun introduced himself on social media as the new police chief of Kabul—which was apparently swiftly denied by the Taleban. Some former government officials posted congratulatory messages online, including former Kandahar governor and businessman Gul Agha Sherzai, who amassed a fortune over the past two decades and Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel, governor of Nangrahar until yesterday (and former head of the IEC secretariat, of sheep-stuffing fame, see here).
The Taleban appeared in the presidential palace much sooner than expected. On Monday evening, Qari Salahuddin, who was introduced as the head of the Taleban’s military commission, received the keys to the castle from General Muhammadullah Amin, the head of the former president’s security detail in a televised ceremony.
Since then, Kabul city has been largely quiet, as have other cities. Although some people are venturing outside to go to work, run errands or see what the streets look like now, by far, most people seem to be hibernating while waiting to find out what the new normal will be. There have been scattered reports of looting, robberies and attempted break-ins, particularly at night, as well as reports of Taleban (or people pretending to be Taleban) confiscating armoured, police and army vehicles. The Taleban have now set up checkpoints across the city, which may avert chaos and public disorder, but will also have a chilling effect—armed men looking into every car—for those already nervous about how they will be treated under the new regime.
Even if currently the rules do not dictate that women stay inside, the uncertainty means that many are not yet venturing out. For some parts of Kabul’s population, the Taleban are as alien as they would be to most foreigners, and the sight of armed, bearded traditionally-clothed men makes their city feel occupied and under threat. There is obviously also a fear that Kabul will be punished, if not by edict, then by behaviour, which can be as simple as harassment and taunts from fighters who came in from the provinces and may feel affronted by the extravagant houses in the more affluent parts of the city and what they consider an overly liberal and lavish lifestyle. Women also fear that the change in government will shift the mood and worsen the harassment they often already encountered in the street.
Throughout the day, offices, shops and even schools slowly opened. There have been pictures of girls going to school, but they tended to have been young. The real litmus test for girl’s education will be whether girls will also be allowed to attend high school and university and, if so, under what conditions. (Schooling up to the sixth grade was already allowed in several, but not all, parts of the country that were under their control – often depending on local customs). Television and radio programming have resumed, but music programming has stopped, as have many regular serials. The news program on the national broadcaster RTA now has a very different feel. At least one TV station still had a female presenter showing her face and wearing a simple headscarf. Broadcaster Tolo reported that the Taleban had visited their offices, confiscated the guards’ government-issued weapons, promised protection and had, so far, generally been polite. Independent online media were still running (as was the internet in general).
The only part of Kabul where there was disorder—and incredibly dramatically so—was the airport. On Sunday, the Americans had already taken control of all outgoing flights, prioritising their own and effectively cancelling civilian air traffic, which meant that the airport was filling up with people who expected or hoped to be on a flight and now found that they weren’t. Overnight the crowds only grew, resulting in dramatic scenes with thousands of people on the runway, trying to break into planes or even climb into moving planes. Several people were trampled or shot. Some fell to their deaths from the sky after trying to hang on to the plane from the outside. The chaos shows the desperation of so many people trying to get out at the same time and fearing that the window to leave is narrow and disappearing. It also seems to be the result of the fact that while the US controls the airport, their forces are focusing on their own evacuations. The civilian side of the airport appears completely unregulated, with almost all staff gone and no security checks, which seems to have made it a no man’s land, not taken by the Taleban yet, for obvious reasons, but also not controlled by the Americans, who appear to the observer to have washed their hands of anything beyond what might affect their own people.
The dramatic images from Kabul airport may suggest to an outside world that, at this very moment, everyone who is afraid is desperately trying to leave the country. However, this is not the case. There are, by far, more people sitting at home, unsure what their future will look like and whether they will be targeted or not. On the one hand, it seems safe to say that not everyone who was linked to the international intervention or the previous government will be targeted; on the other, it is unclear who will be the target of retributions by the Taleban. What is certain is that no one believes that there will be no retribution at all. Indeed, there are already reports that some people have been quietly taken from their homes.
The Taleban are currently conferring in Doha on what their government will look like: its name and structure and who will lead it. Today, the movement’s deputy, Mullah Baradar, hit a conciliatory tone in his speech, expressing surprise over the swiftness of Kabul’s takeover and calling for humbleness. “Now is the time when we will be tested on how we serve and secure our people and ensure their good life and future to the best of our ability,” he said. Taleban spokesperson Mohammad Naeem reiterated that the Taleban would work for a peaceful transition of power, both domestically and internationally, and would aim to maintain international diplomatic ties: “We ask all countries and entities to sit with us to settle any issues.”
The coming days and weeks should bring more clarity on what this will look like—for the world, the Afghan people but also for the Taleban themselves. Though they are not as unprepared as they were in the 1990s, having practised with some form of governance, at least at the local level, they will still need to tread new territory. The transition from being a warring group that uses, among other things, terror to achieve its goals to a government that will be held to account and must learn to leave space for a plurality of opinions, politics and lifestyles, will not be easy.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Thomas Ruttig