• The San Juan Daily Star

A race to aid Afghan allies continues as the Taliban seek to reassure the world

By Marc Santora, Carlotta Gall, Ruhullah Khapalwak and Nick Cumming-Bruce

As pressure mounted on the Biden administration to do more to evacuate thousands of Afghan allies fearing for their lives, the Taliban on Tuesday sought to present themselves to the world as responsible stewards of Afghanistan.

But with both the Biden administration and the Taliban promising to offer protection, for millions of Afghans the future promised only more uncertainty. While the U.S. military on Tuesday restored order within Kabul’s international airport, it was unclear whether Afghans could make it there.

Despite assurances of safe passage, the Taliban are not only known to operate with brutality, but also have a dismal history of managing a vast nation largely dependent on foreign aid.

The group’s leaders took to Twitter, appeared on international cable networks, planned a news conference to provide assurances that they would not engage in systemic retribution and offered vague reassurances to women. Yet there were ominous signs that those promises did not match the situation on the ground.

Taliban fighters spread out across the streets of Kabul, the capital, riding motorbikes and driving police vehicles and Humvees that had been seized from government security forces. Armed fighters occupied parliament, some visited the homes of government officials, confiscating possessions and vehicles, while others made a show of directing traffic.

Fruit sellers were again on the streets and some shops were open. But special forces commandos are among those in hiding, many bitter over having been told not to fight as power brokers sought a peaceful handover.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Monday that his organization was “receiving chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights” throughout the country. “I am particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan,” he said at an emergency meeting of the Security Council.

In some areas of Afghanistan, women have been told not to leave home without being accompanied by a male relative, and girls’ schools have been closed.

The United Nations children’s organization said that the Taliban had appointed coordinators in various parts of the country to act as contact points for humanitarian groups. They met in Kabul on Tuesday to meet the new Taliban commissioner.

UNICEF also met a health commissioner in Herat on Monday and said that he had requested that female employees of the health department return to work.

But the agency also reported mixed messages on questions of education for girls: In some areas, local Taliban authorities said they were awaiting guidance from leaders, and in other areas they said they wanted schools for girls and for boys up and running.

“We are cautiously optimistic on moving forward,” Mustapha Ben Messaoud, UNICEF’s chief of operations in Kabul, said via video link.

The Afghan government’s collapse has left the Taliban in control of not only security, but also basic services in a country already facing a drought that has left a third of its 38 million people in danger of running out of food.

While there have been no confirmed reports of widespread reprisal killings, many people have sheltered in their homes, fearful after watching the insurgents throw open the doors to the nation’s prisons and seize arms depots in their sweep across the nation.

Hoping to get people back to essential jobs, the Taliban issued a “general amnesty” on Tuesday for all government officials, saying that they could return to work with “full confidence.”

But the statement was opaque and memories of Taliban rule are deeply ingrained.

In 1996, the group began their conquest of Kabul by castrating, shooting and eventually hanging Afghanistan’s last Communist president, Najibullah.

They became known for brutality, carrying out executions by stoning in a soccer stadium and compelling men to pray five times a day under the threat of the lash. Television, videos and music were banned.

Women in particular suffered gravely, with girls’ education banned and women largely excluded from public life. There were only an estimated 900,000 students in 2001, and none of them were girls, according to USAID. Two decades later, before the Taliban’s recent takeover, that number had increased to 9.5 million students in the country, 39% of whom are girls.

Still, one of Afghanistan’s major media outlets, ToloNews, featured female anchors on screen Tuesday for the first time since the Taliban takeover.

In some places under Taliban control for the past week, they have resorted to the threat of terror to compel civil servants back to work.

Even before the Taliban issued any official edicts, store owners were busy painting over images of women, hotels stopped playing music, and many Afghans are hiding in their homes, afraid of what they may find on the street.

And tens of thousands were still struggling to find a way to escape.

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