A day after the Taliban installed themselves in the presidential palace in Kabul, seizing control over Afghanistan two decades after being toppled from power by the U.S. military, fears intensified about a return to the Taliban’s brutal rule and the threat of reprisal killings.
Kabul’s international airport was under the protection of foreign forces, including thousands of U.S. soldiers sent to the country to assist in a hasty evacuation. It was a scene of desperation, sadness, and panic.
Thousands of Afghans, including children, flooded the tarmac recently, at one point swarming around a departing U.S. military plane as it taxied down the runway. Images of people clinging to a hulking U.S. military transport, even as it left the ground, quickly circulated around the world. It seemed to capture the moment more vividly than words: a symbol of America’s military might, flying out of the country, even as Afghans hung on against all hope.
President Biden defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, arguing that the U.S. mission there was complete and that nation building was never the initial goal.
“I’ve learned the hard way, there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces”, he said from the White House after cutting short a visit to Camp David. “This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.”
Earlier, Afghan families buried their children who were killed in explosions outside a secondary school in the capital, Kabul. More than 60 people, mostly girls, were known to have died in the attack that hit students as they left class.
The Islamic State (IS) took responsibility for some of the explosions. America’s final exit from the country was also marked by an anti-terrorist attack that the killed dozens of innocent children and women. The world did not hear much of that, and the western media, CNN and BBC included, were seeming collaborators in terms of extremely measured reporting.
The exact targetsof much of the bloodshed are unclear. The blasts came against the backdrop of America’s withdrawalof all its troops from Afghanistan.
The neighbourhood in western Kabul, where the blasts occurred, is home to many from the Hazara minority communities, who are of Mongolian and Central Asian descent and are mainly Shia Muslims.
Heather Barr, who works for Human Rights Watch, tweeted a series of videos and photos of what she said was the school in Kabul, including a tour of the site given by one of the students. Ms. Barr said the group had filmed a documentary there in 2017.
Nobel Prize winner and activist Malala Yousafzai – who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 – posted about the “horrendous attack” on Twitter.
“My heart is with the Kabul school victims’ families,” she wrote.
The first burials took place at “Martyrs Cemetery”, where Hazara victims are laid to rest. Mourners in a state of shock watched in grief as the girls’ bodies in wooden coffins were lowered into graves, AFP news agency reported.
One of the residents of the area was quoted by AFP as saying: “I rushed to the scene and found myself in the middle of bodies. All of them were girls. Their bodies piled on top of each other.”
The explosions are believed to have been caused by a car bomb and two improvised explosive devices planted in the area. One survivor, Zahra, told reporters she was leaving the school as the blasts took place.
“My classmate died. A few minutes later there was another explosion, and then another. Everyone was screaming and there was blood everywhere,” she said.
Almost exactly a year ago, a maternity unit at the local hospital was attacked, leaving 24 women, children and babies dead.
Again, worries pervaded Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, about the potential for violence, as the Taliban filled the city and the Afghan government crumbled. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the insurgents entered the city. A U.S. military official, who was not authorised to speak publicly, said U.S. Armed Forces were not involved in Mr. Ghani’s departure.
In remarkable scenes broadcast on Al Jazeera, Taliban leaders ensconced themselves in the palace only hours after Mr. Ghani fled — taking control over what was once one of the most secured locations in the country and a symbol of the nation that the United States spent so much money and sacrificed so much blood to uphold.
In a video, the head of the Afghan presidential security guards, shook hands with a Taliban commander in one of the palace buildings and said he had accompanied the Taliban commander at the request of the senior Afghan government negotiator.
“I say welcome to them, and I congratulate them,” the official said.
Afghan officials in other cities were filmed handing over power to insurgent leaders. Former President, Hamid Karzai, said he had formed a council with other political leaders to coordinate a peaceful transition to a new Taliban government. Mr. Karzai also asked the head of the Presidential Protection Service to remain at his post and ensure that the palace was not looted.
Early Taliban actions in other cities under their control offered a glimpse of what the future might hold. In Kunduz, which fell on August 8, they set up checkpoints and went door to door in search of absentee civil servants, warning that any who did not return to work would be punished.
The change in atmosphere in Kabul was as swift as it was frightening for many who thought that they could build a life under the protection of their American allies.
Some in the city said the Taliban had already visited government officials’ homes. They entered the home of one former official in western Kabul and removed his cars and took over the home of a former governor in another part of town.
In other parts of the country, there were reports that fighters were searching for people they consider collaborators of the Americans and the fallen government.
Residents of Kabul began tearing down advertisements that showed women without head scarves, for fear of upsetting the Taliban, whose ideology excludes women from much of public life.
Some police officers were taken into custody by Taliban fighters, while others were seen changing into civilian clothes and trying to flee.
As far as theatres of war go, the ‘war on terror’ genre has been perplexing, persistent, and painful to stage and execute. Like most long running productions, there have been plenty of challenges. Maintaining the actors’ endurance and the audience’s appetite has been difficult.
Analysts say thatnot many political leaders have taken on the challenge of telling a tale that is nuanced, complex, and different to Afghan American allies. The original plot line of Afghanistan was undermining the Taliban’s grip on power and ability to provide safety for Al-Qaeda was achieved early.
Then compromised, as military resources and political rhetoric shifted to the war in Iraq. Maybe they do live in a safer world. Nation building and the rights of women and girls are noble causes, but at what cost? 175,000 Afghans have been killed and the country has been ravaged by years of war and occupation.
Thousands of children have died and countless continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress injury. And when Afghan people seek asylum, what story will they remember? The victims of an oppressive regime, or terrorists wanting to do them harm? All they have to show is an unstable puppet regime in Kabul, with the rest of the country still mostly controlled by the Taliban.