Sat, September 25, 2021

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Taliban shifts focus to governing, but protests, empty coffers and isolation pose challenges


KABUL - Rumbles of resistance to the Talibans grip on Afghanistan emerged Wednesday as protests erupted in at least two cities, drawing a violent response from the militants that laid bare the challenges that await as the group attempts to transform itself from an insurgency into a government.

The crackdown on the protests came as Taliban fighters were again accused of using gunfire and violence during their struggle to control crowds at Kabul's international airport, where thousands of people have gathered in recent days hoping to find seats on evacuation flights.

And in Bamian province - home of the Buddha statues famously blown up during the Taliban's last run in power - locals said militants had destroyed the memorial to an anti-Taliban leader, an allegation that undercut the group's pledges to avoid retribution.

Since Taliban fighters overran Kabul on Sunday, the group has sought to convince audiences at home and abroad that it does not plan a return to the brutal rule imposed in an earlier era, favoring instead inclusivity and peace. The pledges, made in the soft light of victory, have left many unconvinced.

But intentions aside, the Taliban faces myriad challenges with the basics of governing. The group inherits a country struggling with drought, the coronavirus pandemic and unrelenting poverty. The state's coffers are empty, its overseas funds are frozen and many aid agencies have suspended activities because of the Taliban's advance.

Foreign governments, meanwhile, have hedged on whether they will offer the Taliban recognition. At home, officials with the ousted government have pledged to start a campaign of "resistance" to Taliban rule.

"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," Martine van Bijlert, a researcher and co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, wrote in an essay this week.

Adding to the uncertainty, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in a videotaped statement Wednesday that he intended to return to Afghanistan, days after he disappeared from Kabul as the Taliban closed in. Ghani said he was in the United Arab Emirates. A government statement said he been welcomed there on "humanitarian grounds."

Ghani, 72, denied reports that he had taken large sums of money with him as he left Kabul. He fled, he said, because he feared the Taliban would hang him should he stay, just as the group did to the former Soviet-backed president the last time it conquered Kabul, in 1996.

A day earlier in Afghanistan, Ghani's former vice president, Amrullah Saleh, declared himself the "caretaker" president and said on Twitter that he was "reaching out to all leaders to secure their support & consensus."

"JOIN THE RESISTANCE," he wrote in another tweet, amid reports he had fled to the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, and was joining forces with Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban commander who was assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before 9/11.

Afghanistan's central bank governor said Wednesday that the Taliban would only have access to a fraction of a percentage of the country's $9 billion international reserve, most of which is held in banks in the United States. The Biden administration froze Afghanistan's funds in recent days in an attempt to gain leverage over the militants. But that move also risks strangling the economy of Afghanistan, a deeply impoverished country that is heavily dependent on U.S. and international aid.

In a lengthy thread on Twitter, the central bank governor, Ajmal Ahmady, detailed the location of the reserve funds, because, he said, he had heard that Taliban members were asking staffers at the central bank "about the location of the assets."

"If this is true - it is clear they urgently need to add an economist on their team," Ahmady wrote. "Taliban and their backers should have foreseen this result," he added. "Taliban won militarily - but now have to govern. It is not easy."

Save the Children said Wednesday that it was "extremely concerned" about the possibility that children in the drought-stricken country would face a severe hunger crisis as aid organizations suspended work after the Taliban assumed control.

"Even before the Taliban advancement, Afghanistan had the second-highest number of people facing emergency hunger levels in the world. Half of all children under five were expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year and require specialized treatment to survive," the group said in a statement.

As the Taliban's leaders reckoned with the practical complexities of paying government employees and feeding the country, political challenges flared up as well. In Jalalabad, east of Kabul, dozens of people marched Wednesday with Afghanistan's national flag - a black, red and green banner. The demonstration was a challenge to the Taliban, which fights under its own white banner inscribed in black letters stating the Islamic profession of faith.

Videos of the protest that were circulated on social media showed protesters marching as the sounds of gunfire could be heard. Al Jazeera reported that two protesters were killed. Danish Karokhil, the executive editor of the Pajhwok Afghan News Agency, said Taliban fighters had fired at protesters and beaten one of the agency's video reporters after asking why he had taken footage of the protests.

Karokhil, in a telephone interview, complained that Taliban officials had not apologized, and he urged them to keep their commitments to respect freedom of speech.

"We want the Taliban to permit us to cover the protest, ordinary life, corruption or any incompetence of the new upcoming government," he said. Large demonstrations featuring protesters carrying the national flag were also held in Khost, southeast of Kabul, according to local media.

In the capital, another journalist was attacked by Taliban fighters Wednesday at Hamid Karzai International Airport while trying to interview people attempting to flee the country, according to the Afghanistan Independent Journalists Association.

The chaos at the airport - where thousands of desperate people have tried to navigate both Taliban checkpoints and a disorganized evacuation effort mounted by the United States and other Western nations - has emerged as another early test of the militants' ability to manage a crisis.

Ahmadullah Wasiq, a Taliban spokesman, said in a voice message to reporters Wednesday that the movement was "concerned and unhappy" over the alleged attack on the journalist. "We are trying to investigate," he said. "We want to take legal action against the perpetrators."

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday that the United States is "in discussions" with the Taliban "trying to ensure not only safe passage for American citizens, but for everybody trying to get to the airport" to leave the country.

"We have heard all the stories . . . about checkpoints, harassments, difficulties" and are "trying to work through those issues as best we can," Sherman said at a State Department briefing.

Earlier Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul posted a security alert for Americans trying to get to the airport, instructing them to enter through the military gate controlled by U.S. forces but saying that "the United States government cannot ensure safe passage" to that point.

Although Sherman said the State Department had received no reports of American citizens prevented by the Taliban from reaching the airport, there have been numerous reports of Afghans, with or without the proper documentation, being blocked from reaching the gate.

Locals in Bamian, west of Kabul, said Wednesday that Taliban fighters had blown up a statue of Abdul Ali Mazari, a leader of the Shiite Hazara minority who was executed by the Taliban in 1995.

"They dug a hole in the statue and filled it with explosive devices. The statue was located close to a Taliban headquarters," said Rajab Ali Balkhshi Nizhad, a resident.

Both the location and target of the attack were symbolic. Two decades ago in Bamian, the Taliban blew up two massive Buddha statues carved into a cliff and dating to the 6th century AD. The Hazaras, who resisted the Taliban in the 1990s, have faced persecution from the Sunni militants.

Nizhad said Taliban fighters had stolen people's vehicles as well as ancient artifacts kept in a warehouse near the destroyed Buddha statues "These people are all armed and can stop me and take my vehicles away," he said. "Bamian is very chaotic."

Mullawi Faroq, a local Taliban official in Bamian, denied that the movement's fighters had destroyed the statue of the Hazara leader, saying "spoilers" were trying to create division between residents and the Taliban.

But he acknowledged residents' complaints that there had been chaos and disorder in the days after the Taliban took over Bamian.

"We received many complaints," he said. But, he added, Taliban fighters who had arrived from outside the province had since been redeployed elsewhere, and the situation had improved.

"We have brought order and security," he said.

Published : August 19, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Kareem Fahim