Taliban meet Afghan protesters with violence amid effort to consolidate power
Canadian Forces personnel have arrived to help co-ordinate evacuation of Afghans and foreign nationals
The Taliban violently dispersed scattered protests for a second day Thursday amid warnings that Afghanistan's already weakened economy could crumble further without the massive international aid that sustained the toppled Western-backed government.
The Taliban have sought to project moderation and say they want good relations with the international community, but they will face a difficult balancing act in making concessions to the West, satisfying their own hard-line followers and suppressing dissent.
A UN official warned of dire food shortages and experts said the country of 38 million people was in severe need of cash while noting that the Taliban are unlikely to enjoy the generous international aid given to the civilian government they dethroned.
In light of these challenges, the Taliban have moved quickly to suppress any dissent, despite their promises that they have become more moderate since they last imposed draconian rule on Afghanistan. Many fear they will succeed in erasing two decades of efforts to expand women's and human rights and remake the country.
On Thursday, a procession of cars and people near Kabul's airport carried long black, red and green banners in honour of the Afghan flag — a banner that is becoming a symbol of defiance since the militants have their own flag.
WATCH | Afghans carry colours of national flag through streets:
At another protest in Nangarhar province, video posted online showed one demonstrator with a gunshot wound bleeding, as onlookers tried to carry him away.
In Khost province, Taliban authorities instituted a 24-hour curfew Thursday after violently breaking up another protest, according to information obtained by journalists monitoring from abroad. The authorities did not immediately acknowledge the demonstration or the curfew.
Protesters also took to the streets in Kunar province, according to witnesses and social media videos that lined up with reporting by The Associated Press.
'Humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions'
The demonstrations — which come as Afghans mark the independence day holiday that commemorates the 1919 treaty that ended British rule — were a remarkable show of defiance after the insurgents violently dispersed a protest Wednesday.
At that rally, in the eastern city of Jalalabad, demonstrators lowered the Taliban's flag and replace it with Afghanistan's tricolour. At least one person was killed.
Meanwhile, opposition figures gathering in the last area of the country not under Taliban rule talked of launching an armed resistance under the banner of the Northern Alliance, which allied with the U.S. during the 2001 invasion.
It was not clear how serious a threat they posed given that the militants overran nearly the entire country in a matter of days with little resistance from Afghan forces.
- LISTEN: 'Conditional engagement' with the Taliban could help the West protect Afghan civil rights: expert
The Taliban so far have offered no specifics on how they will lead, other than to say they will be guided by Shariah, or Islamic, law. They are in talks with senior officials of previous Afghan governments, but they face an increasingly precarious situation.
"A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions is unfolding before our eyes," warned Mary Ellen McGroarty, the head of the UN's World Food Program in Afghanistan. Beyond the difficulties of bringing food into a landlocked nation dependent on imports, she said that drought has seen over 40 per cent of the country's crop lost. Many who fled the Taliban advance now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul.
"This is really Afghanistan's hour of greatest need, and we urge the international community to stand by the Afghan people at this time," she said.
WATCH | What's next for the Taliban in Afghanistan?
Hafiz Ahmad, a shopkeeper in Kabul, said some food has flowed into the capital, but prices have gone up. He hesitated to pass those costs onto his customers but said he had to.
"It is better to have it," he said. "If there were nothing, then that would be even worse."
Evacuation flights continue
Two of Afghanistan's key border crossings with Pakistan are now open for trade. However, traders still fear insecurity on the roads and confusion over customs duties that could push them to price their goods higher.
Amid that uncertainty and concerns that the Taliban will reimpose their brutal rule, which included largely confining women to their homes and holding public executions, many Afghans are trying to flee the country.
At Kabul's international airport, military evacuation flights continued, but access to the airport remained difficult. On Thursday, Taliban militants fired into the air to try to control the crowds gathered at the airport's blast walls.
After a chaotic start that saw people rush the runway and cling to a plane taking off, the U.S. military is ramping up evacuations and now has enough aircraft to get 5,000 to 9,000 people out a day, Army Maj.-Gen. Hank Taylor said Thursday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed Thursday that Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel have arrived on the ground to coordinate with the U.S. and other allies.
"This will help get Canadians, Afghan nationals, and their families to safety," he told reporters in Victoria, adding that two C-17s will be making regular flights into Kabul to support evacuation efforts.
The Department of National Defence said later in an email statement that two Globemaster C-177s have begun flying into Kabul on a rotational basis.
"The Globemasters are currently being reconfigured to carry the maximum number of people as safely as possible, and CAF personnel are empowered to make decisions on the ground in the interest of saving human lives," it said.
The department would not disclose flight schedules for security reasons, but added that the flights could "be expected to have foreign and Afghan nationals who have been accepted under the immigration programs of other nations." In turn, the statement said, Canadian citizens or Afghans eligible for immigration to Canada could be extracted and flown out by other countries.
WATCH | Trudeau describes the challenges of getting people out of Kabul:
President Joe Biden said that he was committed to keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until every American is evacuated, even if that means maintaining a military presence there beyond his Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal.
In an interview with ABC's Good Morning America, Biden said he didn't believe the Taliban had changed.
"I think they're going through sort of an existential crisis about do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government," Biden said. "I'm not sure they do."
The Taliban have urged people to return to work, but most government officials remain in hiding or are themselves attempting to flee.
Limits to threat of sanctions
The head of the country's Central Bank warned that the supply of physical U.S. dollars is "close to zero," which will batter the currency, the afghani. The U.S. has apparently frozen the country's foreign reserves, and the International Monetary Fund cut off access to loans or other resources for now.
"The Afghani has been defended by literally planeloads of U.S. dollars landing in Kabul on a very regular basis, sometimes weekly," said Graeme Smith, a consultant researcher with the Overseas Development Institute.
"If the Taliban don't get cash infusions soon to defend the afghani, I think there's a real risk of a currency devaluation that makes it hard to buy bread on the streets of Kabul for ordinary people."
Still, Smith, who has written a book on Afghanistan, said the Taliban likely won't ask for the same billions in international aid sought by the country's fallen civilian government — large portions of which were funnelled off by corruption. That could limit the power of the international community's threat of sanctions.
"You're much more likely to see the Taliban positioning themselves as sort of gatekeepers to the international community as opposed to coming begging for billions of dollars," he said.
There has been no armed opposition to the Taliban. But videos from the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance militias, appear to show potential opposition figures gathering there. That area is in the only province that has not fallen to the Taliban.
Those figures include members of the deposed government — Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, who asserted on Twitter that he is the country's rightful president, and Defence Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi — as well as Ahmad Massoud, the son of the slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, Massoud asked for weapons and aid to fight the Taliban.
"I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father's footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban," he wrote.