The Taliban deployed extra forces around Kabul's airport Saturday to prevent large crowds from gathering after a devastating suicide attack two days earlier, as the massive U.S.-led airlift wound down ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline.
New layers of checkpoints sprang up on roads leading to the airport, some manned by uniformed Taliban fighters with Humvees and night-vision goggles captured from Afghan security forces. Areas, where large crowds of people have gathered over the past two weeks in hopes of fleeing the country following the Taliban takeover, were largely empty.
A suicide attack on Thursday by an Islamic State affiliate killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, and there are concerns that the group, which is far more radical than the Taliban, could strike again. The U.S. military said it killed an IS militant early Saturday in a drone strike, after U.S. President Joe Biden had promised swift retaliation.
Many Western nations have already completed their evacuation operations ahead of Tuesday’s deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.
An Afghan who had worked as a translator for the U.S. military said he was with a group of people with permission to leave who tried to reach the airport late Friday. After passing through three checkpoints they were stopped at a fourth. An argument ensued, and the Taliban said they had been told by the Americans to only let U.S. passport-holders through.
“I am so hopeless for my future," the man told The Associated Press after returning to Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. "If the evacuation is over, what will happen to us?”
On Saturday, the Taliban fired warning shots and deployed some kind of colored smoke on a road leading to the airport, sending dozens of people scattering, according to a video circulating online that was consistent with AP reporting.
More than 110,000 people have been safely evacuated through the Kabul airport since the Taliban takeover, according to the U.S., including around 6,800 in the last 24 hours. But thousands more are struggling to leave and may not make it out by Tuesday.
In Kabul itself, hundreds of protesters, including many civil servants, gathered outside a bank while countless more lined up at cash machines. The protesters said they had not been paid for the past three to six months and were unable to withdraw cash. ATM machines are still operating, but withdrawals are limited to around $200 every 24 hours.
Later Saturday, the central bank ordered commercial bank branches to open and dispense up to $200 a day to customers, calling it a temporary measure.
The economic crisis, which predates the Taliban takeover earlier this month, could give Western nations leverage as they urge Afghanistan's new rulers to form a moderate, inclusive government and allow people to leave after Tuesday.
Afghanistan is heavily dependent on international aid, which covered around 75% of the toppled Western-backed government's budget. The Taliban have said they want good relations with the international community and have promised a more moderate form of Islamic rule than when they last governed the country, but many Afghans are deeply skeptical.
The Taliban cannot access almost any of the central bank’s $9 billion in reserves, most of which is held by the New York Federal Reserve. The International Monetary Fund has also suspended the transfer of some $450 million. Without a regular supply of U.S. dollars, the local currency is at risk of collapse, which could send the price of basic goods soaring.
A U.N. agency meanwhile warned that a worsening drought threatens the livelihoods of more than 7 million people. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said Afghans are also suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and displacement from the recent fighting.
Earlier this month, the U.N. World Food Program estimated that some 14 million people — roughly one out of every three Afghans — urgently need food assistance.
The FAO said that crucial help is needed ahead of the winter wheat planting season, which begins in a month in many areas. So far, funding would cover assistance to only 110,000 families of farmers, while some 1.5 million need help, the agency said, adding that the current harvest is expected to be 20% below last year's.
Biden has said he will adhere to a self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing all U.S. forces. The Taliban, who control nearly the entire country outside Kabul's airport, have rejected any extension.
Italy said its final evacuation flight had landed in Rome but that it would work with the United Nations and countries bordering Afghanistan to continue helping Afghans who had worked with its military contingent to leave the country.
“Our imperative must be to not abandon the Afghan people,” especially women and children, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Saturday. He said 4,890 Afghans were evacuated by Italy’s air force on 87 flights, but did not say how many others were still eligible.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said the final U.K. evacuation flight for Afghan nationals left Kabul. Further flights over the weekend will bring home British troops and diplomats, though they may also carry some remaining U.K. or Afghan civilians.
The Taliban have encouraged Afghans to stay in the country, pledging amnesty even to those who fought against them. They have said commercial flights will resume after the U.S. withdrawal, but it's unclear if airlines will be willing to offer service.
The U.S. and its allies have said they will continue providing humanitarian aid through the U.N. and other partners, but any broader engagement — including development assistance — is likely to hinge on whether the Taliban deliver on their promises of more moderate rule.
When the Taliban last governed Afghanistan, from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, they imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Women were largely confined to their homes, television and music were banned, and suspected criminals were maimed or executed in public.
This time, the Taliban says women will be allowed to attend school and work outside the home. They have been negotiating with senior Afghan officials from previous governments and say they want an “inclusive, Islamic government."
But even as the group's top leadership has struck a more moderate tone, there have been reports of human rights abuses in areas under Taliban control. It's unclear whether fighters are acting under orders or on their own.
Taliban fighters beat up a cameraman for the private broadcaster Tolo TV earlier this week in Kabul. Saad Mohseni, the CEO of the group that owns the channel, said the Taliban have been in touch with the station's management about the incident. He said the fighter has been identified, but it's unclear if he has faced any disciplinary action. There was no comment from the Taliban.