KABUL: The Taleban's co-founder returned to Afghanistan yesterday following the group's stunning takeover of the country, hours after they told government staff to return to work -- though residents reacted cautiously and few women took to the streets. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar's arrival from Qatar -- where he has spent months leading talks with the United States and then Afghan peace negotiators -- crowns a stunning comeback for the Taleban after being ousted 20 years ago.
Tens of thousands of people have tried to flee the country to escape the hardline Islamist rule expected under the Taleban, or fearing direct retribution for siding with the US-backed government that ruled for the past two decades. Significantly Baradar, now deputy leader of the group, chose to touch down in Afghanistan's second biggest city Kandahar -- the Taleban's spiritual birthplace and capital during their first time in power.
He landed hours after evacuation flights from Kabul's airport restarted after chaos Monday when huge crowds mobbed the apron, with some people so desperate they clung to the fuselage of a US military plane as it rolled down the runway for take-off. The Taleban led a pariah regime from 1996 to 2001, infamous for a brutal rule in which girls could not go to school, women were barred from working in jobs that would put them in contact with men, and people were stoned to death.
US-led forces invaded following the September 11 attacks, in response to the Taleban giving sanctuary to Al-Qaeda, and toppled them. Now the Taleban are back in power, they have sought to project an air of restraint and moderation, including by on Tuesday announcing a "general amnesty" for government workers. "Those working in any part or department of the government should resume their duties with full satisfaction and continue their duties without any fear," a Taleban statement said.
Some shops also reopened as traffic police were back on the streets, while Taleban officials planned a first diplomatic meeting -- with the Russian ambassador. A Taleban official also gave an interview to a female journalist on an Afghan news channel, and a girls' school reopened in the western city of Herat. Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the Taleban had sent a "positive signal" by showing a "readiness to respect the opinion of others".
'There is fear'
In the capital, however, schools and universities remained closed, few women openly took to the streets and men had shed their Western clothes for traditional garb. "The fear is there," said a shopkeeper who asked not to be named after opening his small neighbourhood provisions store. The UN Security Council also said Monday the international community must ensure Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for terrorism. "The world is watching," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. The Taleban took effective control of the country on Sunday when president Ashraf Ghani fled and the insurgents walked into Kabul with no opposition.
It capped a staggeringly fast rout of all cities in just 10 days, achieved with relatively little bloodshed, following two decades of war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The collapse came after US President Joe Biden withdrew US troops, under the false belief that the Afghan army -- with billions of dollars in American funding and training -- was strong enough to withstand the Taleban.
Biden defends exit
In his first comments since the Taleban victory, Biden admitted their advance had unfolded more quickly than expected. But he heaped criticism on Ghani's government, insisted he had no regrets, and emphasised US troops could not defend a nation whose leaders "gave up and fled". "We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future," Biden said in his address at the White House.
"American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves." NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also blamed Afghan leaders for the "tragedy". "Ultimately, the Afghan political leadership failed to stand up to the Taleban and to achieve the peaceful solution that Afghans desperately wanted," he said.
The United States has also come under criticism for its handling of the evacuations of Afghans. Washington sent 6,000 troops to ensure the safe evacuation of embassy staff, as well as Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other support roles. Other governments, including France, Germany and Australia, also organised charter flights.
But on Monday, dramatic footage posted on social media showed hundreds of men running alongside a US Air Force plane as it rolled down the runway, with some clinging to the side. In other videos, civilians frantically clambered up an already overcrowded and buckling jetway. "The images of desperation at Kabul airport are shameful for the political West," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. China also continued its verbal barrage against the United States over the situation in Afghanistan. "(Washington) left an awful mess of unrest, division and broken families," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters. - AFP