October 20, 2021

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Reassurances From Taliban, but Fearful Afghans Look for the Exits

37 min read
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As pressure mounted on the Biden administration to do more to evacuate thousands of Afghan allies fearing for their lives, the Taliban on Tuesday sought to present themselves to the world as responsible stewards of Afghanistan.

But with both the Biden administration and the Taliban promising to offer protection, for millions of Afghans the future promised only more uncertainty. While the U.S. military on Tuesday restored order within Kabul’s international airport, it was unclear whether Afghans could make it there.

Despite assurances of safe passage, the Taliban are not only known to operate with brutality, but also have a dismal history of managing a vast nation largely dependent on foreign aid.

The group’s leaders took to Twitter, appeared on international cable networks and held a news conference — all to provide assurances that they would not engage in systemic retribution and to offer vague reassurances to women. “Give us time,” a spokesman said at the news conference, in Kabul.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the Taliban’s Military Commission, Mullah Yaqoub, reiterated orders that fighters in Kabul should not enter people’s homes or seize property. “No one is allowed to enter anyone’s house, particularly in Kabul, where we have entered recently and the situation is new,” he said.

But he coupled that with a warning, saying that the Taliban would be collecting weapons and government property in an organized manner and that looting state property was a betrayal of the country.

“If anyone is caught, they will be dealt with,” he said.

There were other signals that the Taliban are now seeking to move from being insurgents to the new legal authority in the nation.

Mullah Baradar, the chief of the Taliban’s political office, arrived in the southern city of Kandahar on Tuesday, returning to Afghanistan for what is believed to be the first time in a decade.

A Taliban delegation also was in Kabul on Tuesday for discussions with political leaders to negotiate the formation of an interim government, according to Maulvi Qalamuddin, a former Taliban minister who reconciled with the Afghan government long ago.

The delegation, led by Amir Khan Muttaqi, who served as the minister of higher education in the previous Taliban government, met with a coordinating council led by former President Hamid Karzai. More senior Taliban leaders are scheduled to arrive in Kabul on Wednesday and will most likely announce a new government, he said.

“They have been in the city for the last three days, and if the Taliban had wanted a one-sided government, they would have already declared an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan yesterday in the presidential palace,” he said. “They would have announced their cabinet, But no. In fact, they were waiting for this.”

Still, there were also ominous signs that the Taliban’s promises did not match the situation on the ground.

Taliban fighters spread out across the streets of Kabul, the capital, riding motorbikes and driving police vehicles and Humvees that had been seized from government security forces. Armed fighters occupied Parliament, and some visited the homes of government officials, confiscating possessions and vehicles, while others made a show of directing traffic

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said on Monday that his organization was “receiving chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights” throughout the country. “I am particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan,” he said at an emergency meeting of the Security Council.

In some areas of Afghanistan, women have been told not to leave home without being accompanied by a male relative, and girls’ schools have been closed.

The United Nations children’s organization, UNICEF, said that the Taliban had appointed coordinators in various parts of the country to act as contact points for humanitarian groups. UNICEF representatives met with a health commissioner in Herat on Monday and said he had requested that female employees of the health department return to work.

But the agency reported getting mixed messages on education for girls: In some areas, local Taliban authorities said they were awaiting guidance from leaders, and in other areas they said they wanted schools for girls and for boys up and running.

“We are cautiously optimistic on moving forward,” Mustapha Ben Messaoud, UNICEF’s chief of operations in Kabul, said via video link.

The Afghan government’s collapse has left the Taliban in control of not only security, but also basic services in a country already facing a drought that has left a third of its 38 million people in danger of running out of food.

While there have been no confirmed reports of widespread reprisal killings, many people have sheltered in their homes.

Hoping to get people back to essential jobs, the Taliban issued a “general amnesty” on Tuesday for all government officials, saying that they could return to work with “full confidence.”

But memories of Taliban rule are deeply ingrained.

They became known for brutality, carrying out executions by stoning in a soccer stadium and compelling men to pray five times a day under the threat of the lash. Television, videos and music were banned.

Women in particular suffered gravely, with girls’ education banned and women largely excluded from public life. There were only an estimated 900,000 students in 2001, and none of them were girls, according to USAID. Two decades later, before the Taliban’s recent takeover, that number had increased to 9.5 million students in the country, 39 percent of whom are girls.

Still, one of Afghanistan’s major media outlets, ToloNews, featured female anchors onscreen on Tuesday for the first time since the Taliban takeover.

Afghans being evacuated from Kabul to Qatar in a U.S. Air Force plane on Sunday.
Credit…U.S. Air Force, via Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Tuesday that evacuation operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport were accelerating, with additional American troops flowing in and hundreds of passengers flying out.

Overnight, nine Air Force C-17 transport planes brought in 1,000 troops, with the expectation that more than 4,000 troops would be at the airport by day’s end, Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the military’s Joint Staff told reporters Tuesday morning.

Seven C-17s left Kabul overnight carrying about 700 American citizens, citizens of other foreign countries, and Afghans who had helped the American war effort, as well as their family members, General Taylor said. About 1,400 people have been evacuated since the operation began, he said.

A day after massive crowds spilled onto the airfield, delaying flights for hours, the Pentagon’s goal over the next day or two is to conduct up to one flight per hour. Officials hope to fly out between 5,000 and 9,000 passengers a day, weather and security conditions permitting.

“We’ll do as much as we can, as long as we can,” John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.

So far, the Taliban have not attacked or otherwise interfered with the evacuation at the airport, General Taylor said. The Pentagon warned the Taliban on Monday that any hostile action would be met with a swift and forceful military response.

Mr. Kirby said that American commanders at the airport were in communication with Taliban commanders outside the airport, but he would not characterize the discussions.

Military officials sidestepped questions about how the U.S. government would provide safe passage to the airport for the several thousand Americans believed to still be in Kabul, and for the tens of thousands of Afghans whom the Biden administration has promised to airlift to safety either in the United States or third countries.

But the danger was made clear in a State Department communication sent to American citizens in Afghanistan on Tuesday that directed them to to head toward the airport. It warned that the U.S. could not guarantee their safety.

Mr. Kirby said the White House’s deadline for completing the herculean feat of evacuating tens of thousands of people from country was Aug. 31. He would not comment on what would happened if the mission was not accomplished by that date.

Yet most Afghan civilians are left with little immediate hope of escaping the return of an Islamist militant group that once ruled Afghanistan with terror and brutality.

Taliban fighters swept into Kabul, the capital, on Sunday, capping a stunning march across Afghanistan in the closing moments of the United States’ 20-year military mission in the country.

Thousands of Afghans flocked to Kabul’s airport, and on Monday they rushed the boarding gates, mobbed the runways, clambered atop the wings of jets and even tried to cling to the fuselage of departing U.S. military planes.

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Pentagon Outlines Strategy For Afghanistan Rescue Efforts

A Pentagon spokesman outlined its rescue strategy for getting Afghan citizens and foreign nationals out of Afghanistan after it was taken over by the Taliban, and highlighted safety concerns throughout the region.

Yesterday, the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan started at about roughly 2,500 and by the end of today, there will be more than approximately 4,000 troops on the ground in Kabul. Forces will continue to flow in and reinforce the State Department and D.O.D. effort there. The operation is ongoing, and I’d like to give you a few more details on that operation. HKIA (Hamid Karzai International Airport) remains secure. It is currently open for military flight operations, as well as limited commercial flight operations. Throughout the night, nine C-17s arrived, delivering equipment and approximately 1,000 troops. Right now, we’re looking at one aircraft per hour in and out of HKIA. We predict that our best effort could look like 5,000 to 9,000 passengers departing per day. But we are mindful that a number of factors influenced this effort, and circumstances could change. You have likely seen the image floating around of Afghan families in a cargo plane. This speaks to the humanity of our troops in this mission, the skill and professionalism of our U.S. military. We have had no hostile interactions, no attack and no threat by the Taliban. We remain vigilant. We also have not experienced any additional security incidents at HKIA.

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A Pentagon spokesman outlined its rescue strategy for getting Afghan citizens and foreign nationals out of Afghanistan after it was taken over by the Taliban, and highlighted safety concerns throughout the region.

At least half a dozen Afghans were killed in the chaos, some falling from the skies as they lost their grasp, and at least two shot by American soldiers trying to contain the surging crowds.

The images evoked America’s frantic departure from Vietnam, encapsulating Afghanistan’s breathtaking collapse in the wake of American abandonment.

 Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said he would not “speculate on the timetable question” on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

A bipartisan group of 44 lawmakers has urged President Biden to extend the administration’s Aug. 31 deadline for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and to “stay as long as is necessary” for American citizens, allies and vulnerable Afghans to safely leave the country.

In an open letter, the lawmakers, led by Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a veteran of the Obama administration, on Tuesday urged Mr. Biden to allow people with Special Immigrant Visas, as well as “vulnerable Afghans slated for evacuation” to remain at Kabul’s international airport “for as long as necessary until their turn comes to get onto a plane, so that they are not forced to hide in Kabul and to brave Taliban checkpoints later.”

The letter said it would be “unconscionable and devastating to our credibility to leave our allies behind, given the commitments we have made.” It said Mr. Biden had no reason to consider himself bound by any commitment to the Taliban, “who have never fully lived up to their part of the bargains they struck with us.”

Mr. Biden has authorized 6,000 troops to be deployed to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation of Afghan allies and U.S. citizens. Thousands of people have been thronging the airport trying to get out of the country, including many who worked for the U.S.-backed Afghan government or collaborated with American forces during the 20-year conflict.

A Taliban spokesman said the group would not take reprisals against its former enemies, but fear is running high.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, would not commit to extending the administration’s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for the current mission.

Pressed at a White House press briefing about whether American troops would remain in the country until everyone is evacuated, Mr. Sullivan said the administration was “working day by day to get as many people out, so I’m not going to speculate on the timetable question.”

People wanting to flee the country gathered in front of the airport in Kabul.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The intelligence warnings came like a drumbeat.

Should the Taliban seize cities, one said, a cascading collapse could happen rapidly and the Afghan security forces were at high risk of falling apart.

Another said that even Kabul was at risk, with the Afghan government unprepared for a Taliban assault, according to a person familiar with the intelligence.

Classified assessments by American spy agencies over the summer painted an increasingly grim picture of the prospect of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and warned of the rapid collapse of the Afghan military, even as President Biden and his advisers said publicly that was unlikely to happen as quickly, according to current and former American government officials.

It is unclear whether other reports during this period presented a more optimistic picture about the ability of the Afghan military and the government in Kabul to withstand the insurgents.

But the warnings in the newly described reports raise questions about why Biden administration officials, and military planners in Afghanistan, seemed ill-prepared to deal with the Taliban’s final push into Kabul, including a failure to ensure security at the main airport and rushing thousands more troops back to the country to protect the United States’ final exit.

“The American and Afghan people clearly have not been told the truth,” said Senator Bob Menendez, seen here earlier this month.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday blistered President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and pledged to investigate the administration’s “policy execution and intelligence failures.”

In a scathing statement, warning that the nation’s “reputation is on the line,” Mr. Menendez said he would “seek a full accounting” of how the Biden administration failed to grasp the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal.

“Congress was told repeatedly that the Afghan Defense and Security Forces were up to the task, that it had the troops, equipment and willingness to fight,” Mr. Menendez said. “To see this army dissolve so quickly after billions of dollars in U.S. support is astounding. The American and Afghan people clearly have not been told the truth.”

Top White House officials defended the president’s decision-making on Tuesday, a day after Mr. Biden insisted that withdrawing the United States from its 20-year conflict in Afghanistan was the right thing to do even in the face of the chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport.

Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters that the president was well aware of the risks — including the need for a rapid evacuation of personnel — involved in ending the American presence in Afghanistan. But he said Mr. Biden thought the risks of continuing to fight in the country were too great.

“What has unfolded over the past month has proven decisively that it would have taken a significant American troop presence multiple times greater than what President Biden was handed to stop the Taliban onslaught,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And we would have taken casualties. American men and women would have been fighting and dying once again in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Sullivan expressed sadness over the likely plight of women and girls in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. And he said the Taliban are certain to benefit from some of the advanced weaponry that the United States gave to the Afghan forces and is now in Taliban hands.

But he said Mr. Biden and his aides understood — and planned for — the implications of the decision to leave Afghanistan.

“We were cleareyed going in when we made this decision, that it was possible that the Taliban would end up in control of Afghanistan,” Mr. Sullivan said, noting that the administration urged Americans for weeks to leave Afghanistan because of the dangers.

But those explanations have not been enough for the president’s critics, even those in his own party.

Mr. Menendez’s vow to hold a president of his own party to account — with the gavel Mr. Biden used to wield in the Foreign Relations Committee — could prove a major headache for administration officials. And it came after other Democratic congressional leaders, including Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said they would also seek answers on what went wrong.

Asked to respond to the criticism, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, acknowledged on Tuesday that the Taliban takeover “did happen more rapidly than anyone anticipated — and I think that counts for members of Congress and people who are on the ground in Afghanistan.”

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Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, said there would not be reprisals against foreign nationals under Taliban rule and that women would be allowed to work “in accordance with Shariah law.”CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

For nearly two decades, Zabihullah Mujahid was the voice of the Taliban, but only on Tuesday did the world get its first look at his face, when he appeared before reporters in a jam-packed Kabul briefing room to discuss what the insurgents plan to do with their newly won country.

Mr. Mujahid appeared at pains to strike a conciliatory tone, repeating earlier Taliban assurances that they planned no vendetta against those who had opposed them in Afghanistan, even those who had worked with the American and NATO military forces.

The news conference was held days after the insurgents had marched into Kabul, the capital, and as Afghans — and the world — braced to see if they planned a brutal reprise of their earlier years in power. With Western powers and Afghans who helped them during the United States’ 20-year war against the Taliban racing to get out of the country, the insurgents have been trying to recast themselves in a less menacing light.

Pressed by reporters Tuesday about what would happen next, Mr. Mujahid shied away from detail, saying “serious talks” were now underway about the shape of a new government.

“Give us time,” Mr. Mujahid asked.

He also offered assurances to Afghanistan’s women, who were brutally repressed the last time the Taliban controlled the country, before the group was toppled by U.S. forces in 2001.

“We assure that there will be no violence against women,” he said, “no prejudice against women will be allowed, but the Islamic values are our framework.”

Again, the language was vague. Women, Mr. Mujahid said, will be active in society, allowed to work and study — but “within the bounds of Islamic law.”

But already there have been reports of women being ordered out of their offices and told to fully cover when out in public, as well as the Taliban taking away property. And the Taliban are also accused of a large number of revenge killings in the last stretch of the fighting, particularly in the southern province of Kandahar.

In Kabul on Tuesday, on the third day of the Taliban’s return, life appeared to be returning to some semblance of normalcy. Shops were opening and traffic was bustling again, though cars were occasionally stopped at checkpoints by ragtag fighters.

As more women appeared on the streets in some neighborhoods, there seemed little change in the way they dressed — just a bit more modesty, with baggier robes and tighter scarfs — and there was no sign that the Taliban was moving to reimpose the burqa, as they did in the 1990s. On television, female journalists could be seen reporting from the streets and interviewing Taliban members in the studio. Broadcasters seemed to be trading carefully when it came to music, banned under the previous Taliban regime, airing songs with a devotional leaning.

The Taliban news conference Tuesday was held in the same room that the Afghan government once used to brief the media. As Mr. Mujahid took his seat in front of a roomful of reporters, the setting appeared identical. The same microphones, the same furniture, the same drapes. Only the flag was different; the white flag of the Taliban had replaced the Afghan one.

Of course, the man doing the talking had also changed.

“We want a strong Islamic system,” Mr. Mujahid said.

But even on the question of whether they want the return of the Islamic Emirate — that is what their oppressive system was called in the 1990s — Mr. Mujahid was noncommittal. What the shape off the government will be, and what it is to be called, will be decided in ongoing discussions, he said.

Mr. Mujahid was asked about the Taliban’s long campaign of bombings, which took untold civilian lives.

“Do you think the people of Afghanistan will forgive you?” one Afghan reporter asked.

The Taliban spokesman said it had been a time of war — “our families also suffered,” he said — but allowed that the civilian deaths were “unfortunate.”

Mr. Mujahid was also asked about the man who had sat in his very seat only a week ago, a government spokesman assassinated by the Taliban.

He offered the same answer: It was war.

Members of the Taliban at their first press conference after they took control of Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The Biden administration has blocked access to Afghan central bank assets in the United States to ensure that they are not available to the Taliban, an administration official said on Tuesday.

The action, taken by the Treasury Department, to cut off the Afghan economy’s financial lifeline will put economic pressure on the Taliban as they seek to keep public services operating. The vast majority of the Afghan central bank’s assets, which include $9.4 billion in gross international reserves, are not currently held in Afghanistan.

The decision was reported earlier by Politico.

As the Afghan government collapsed over the weekend, lawmakers in the United States pushed to ensure that financial ties between the countries are severed.

Representative Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, wrote on Twitter on Saturday that he had sent a letter to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York “calling on them to ensure Afghan government financial assets at the Fed don’t fall into Taliban control.”

The extent of Afghan holdings at the institution is not clear, though it is common for foreign governments to hold accounts at the New York Fed, both for security reasons and to enable smooth cross-border payments and dollar-based transactions. The New York Fed does not, as a matter of policy, acknowledge or discuss individual account holders, a Fed official said.

It is unlikely that the Taliban would be able to retrieve any Afghan assets stored with the Fed. When current events affect the status of accounts, the New York Fed and the State Department determine who can have access based on a compliance manual the central bank branch disclosed several years ago. Likewise, under the Federal Reserve Act, the secretary of state must recognize individual representatives of foreign account holders.

Separately on Tuesday, a group of 18 lawmakers sent a letter to the Treasury secretary, Janet L. Yellen, urging her to intervene in the scheduled release of $650 billion in International Monetary Fund emergency reserves this month. The allocation, of so-called special drawing rights, would potentially give Afghanistan and the Taliban access to $450 million.

“The potential of the S.D.R. allocation to provide nearly half a billion dollars in unconditional liquidity to a regime with a history of supporting terrorist actions against the United States and her allies is extremely concerning,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Representative French Hill, a Republican from Arkansas. It is not clear what Ms. Yellen could do at this point to intervene, and it is up to the I.M.F. to determine how a country is recognized.

The acting governor of Afghanistan’s central bank, Ajmal Ahmady, said on Monday that he had received a call on Friday saying it would get no further shipments of U.S. dollars. The central bank supplied less currency to the markets on Saturday, a move that “further increased panic,” he said.

The Treasury Department declined to comment on the letter to Ms. Yellen and the canceled shipments.

Crowds of people waiting to flee Kabul on Monday. The Afghan currency has weakened to a record low to the U.S. dollar.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“It did not have to end this way,” Ajmal Ahmady, the acting governor of Afghanistan’s cental bank, said this week, describing the chaos in Kabul as he fled the country.

In a series of Twitter posts Monday, Mr. Ahmady detailed how the central bank tried to respond to turbulence in Afghanistan’s currency market late last week amid the swift takeover of the country by the Taliban, and his disappointment that the country’s leadership was fleeing without any sort of transition plan.

Top figures in President Ashraf Ghani’s government were inexperienced, he wrote, and it was Mr. Ghani’s “failure that he never recognized such weaknesses.”

Mr. Ahmady said the collapse of the government was “so swift and complete” that it was “disorienting and difficult to comprehend.”

The Afghan currency, the afghani, slumped more than 6 percent on Tuesday to a record low of 86 to the U.S. dollar, according to Bloomberg data.

Mr. Ahmady was appointed the central bank’s acting governor in June 2020. Before that, he served as a senior adviser to the president for banking and financial affairs, as well as other ministerial positions. Mr. Ahmady was educated in the United States, at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Harvard Business School.

Afghan lawmakers rejected making Mr. Ahmady the permanent central bank chief in December, citing reasons including insufficient fluency in the country’s national languages, Bloomberg reported.

As a temporary caretaker of the economy, Mr. Ahmady focused on price stability, strengthening the financial sector and digitizing payments. The International Monetary Fund forecast the Afghan economy — which relies heavily on international aid — to rebound 4 percent this year after shrinking in 2020, but in June warned that it was facing “formidable challenges” because of the pandemic and “precarious security situation.”

Last week, “currency volatility and other indicators had worsened” before the Afghan government fell, he said, but the central bank had been able to stabilize the economy “relatively well.”

“Then came last Thursday.”

Mr. Ahmady described how he had attended his normal meetings that morning, but by the time he returned home, major cities including Ghazni and Herat were under Taliban control. On Friday, he said, he received a call saying that the central bank would get no further shipments of U.S. dollars, and on Saturday, the bank supplied less currency to the markets, a move that “further increased panic,” he said.

“I held meetings on Saturday to reassure banks and money exchangers to calm them down,” Mr. Ahmady wrote. “I can’t believe that was one day before Kabul fell.”

On Saturday night, he said, he bought tickets to leave the country on Monday “as a precaution.” But on Sunday, he left the central bank and went to the airport, where he saw Afghan politicians.

“I secured a Kam Air flight Sunday 7pm,” he said, referring to an international airline based in Kabul. “Then the floor fell: the President had already left.”

Civil servants and the military immediately left their positions as word of Mr. Ghani’s departure spread, and hundreds of people raced to board an outbound plane. “The plane had no fuel or pilot. We all hoped it would depart,” he wrote.

He then disembarked from the aircraft, and amid of rush of people he ended up on a military plane. Mr. Ahmady did not say who owned the plane he was on or where it was going.

“It did not have to end this way,” he wrote. “I am disgusted by the lack of any planning by Afghan leadership. Saw at airport them leave without informing others. I asked the palace if there was an evacuation plan/charter flights. After 7 years of service, I was met with silence.”

The European Union foreign ministers discussed the potential for a new wave of migrants and asylum seekers from Afghanistan during a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
Credit…Pool photo by Johanna Geron

BRUSSELS — The NATO alliance and European Union foreign ministers held separate emergency meetings on Tuesday to discuss how best to coordinate the evacuation of their citizens and local Afghan employees from Kabul.

With the United States, Turkey, Britain and France all having sent in troops to take control of the main international airport in Kabul, evacuation flights were gathering pace. The Pentagon suggested that at least one flight would take off every hour until at least the end of the month.

European leaders consulted on the evacuation. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, spoke with the leaders of France, Britain and Italy, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. They agreed to cooperate and coordinate on the ground, Ms. Merkel’s spokesman said.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said that some 800 NATO civilian personnel remained in Afghanistan, working on air-traffic control, fuel supplies and communications.

Mr. Stoltenberg described conditions as “extremely serious and unpredictable,” and repeated that all 30 NATO countries had agreed with the United States about ending their military involvement there.

The sudden collapse of the Afghan military and government was a surprise, Mr. Stoltenberg conceded, but like President Biden, he blamed Afghanistan’s leaders.

“Ultimately, the Afghan political leadership failed to stand up to the Taliban and to achieve the peaceful solution that Afghans desperately wanted,” he said. “This failure of Afghan leadership led to the tragedy we are witnessing today.”

He called on the Taliban to allow evacuation flights to leave unhindered and to ensure that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda could not flourish again. “Those now taking power have the responsibility to ensure that international terrorists do not regain a foothold,” he said. “We have the capabilities to strike terrorist groups from a distance if we see that terrorist groups again try to establish themselves and plan, organize attacks against NATO allies and their countries.”

The European Union foreign ministers discussed the potential for a new wave of migrants and asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Next to Syrians, Afghans are the largest group seeking asylum in Europe. According to some E.U. estimates, around 570,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in Europe since 2015.

Asylum applications by Afghan nationals have climbed by a third since February, as it became clear that NATO troops were leaving. More than 4,648 applications were lodged in May, according to the European Union, and in the past, nearly 60 percent of them have been successful.

Josep Borrell Fontelles, the E.U. foreign policy chief, said that Spain had agreed to create a hub for processing Afghans evacuated from the country, including about 400 Afghans and family members of Afghans who worked directly for the European Union there. He thanked the Italians for providing transport and the French for providing security. “This is work in progress,” he said, with those Afghans still sheltering at home.

Europeans will talk to authorities in Kabul in an effort to ensure that there is “no humanitarian and migratory crisis,” Mr. Borrell said, and will work to support countries neighboring Afghanistan and other countries through which refugees might move. Europeans, he said, want “to ensure no wide-scale migratory move toward Europe.” But Europeans would also accept refugees like Afghan journalists and workers in civil society who fear retribution, he said.

In a statement, the foreign ministers called on the Taliban to respect human rights and said that future relations would depend upon it. “The protection and promotion of all human rights, in particular those of women and girls, must be an integral part of these efforts and women should be supported and able to contribute fully to this process,” they said.

President Emmanuel Macron of France said on Monday that France, Germany and other European partners would work swiftly on a “robust response” to any new influx of people from Afghanistan. “Europe cannot alone assume the consequences,” he said.

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A female news anchor interviewed a Taliban official on an Afghan television station. The group’s takeover has raised fears of a return to repressive policies and human rights violations for women and girls.CreditCredit…Tolo News

In the two decades since the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban, girls and women in Afghanistan have joined the military and police forces, held political office, competed in the Olympics and scaled the heights of engineering on robotics teams — things that once seemed unimaginable under the Taliban. The United States also invested more than $780 million to encourage women’s rights.

The question now: Will the Taliban once again trample over women’s rights, and with the same velocity they captured the country?

In recent days, the Taliban have aimed to present a more moderate face to the world and help tame the fear gripping Afghanistan. They have even encouraged women to return to work and to take part in the government.

Yet amid worries of running afoul of local Taliban officials, many women have remained shuttered at home. Kabul residents have been tearing down advertisements showing women without head scarves in recent days. In some areas of Afghanistan, women have been told not to leave home without being accompanied by a male relative, and girls’ schools have been closed.

Then-President George W. Bush with then-President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in Kabul in 2008.
Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

President George W. Bush, who ordered the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power, said this week that he felt “deep sadness” at the group’s takeover of Afghanistan and defended his decision to launch what would become America’s longest war.

“Our hearts are heavy for both the Afghan people who have suffered so much and for the Americans and NATO allies who have sacrificed so much,” the former president and his wife, Laura Bush, wrote in a letter released on Monday.

Mr. Bush was in his first year in office, with little experience in foreign affairs, when the Sept. 11 attacks prompted him to deploy troops to Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban government that had sheltered the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

But then Mr. Bush turned his focus to invading Iraq, the costly military campaign that would come to define his presidency, leaving the Afghanistan mission to drag on with ill-defined goals and little oversight.

In his letter, Mr. Bush addressed U.S. troops who had served in Afghanistan, including thousands who did multiple tours, arguing that he had not sent them to war in vain.

“You took out a brutal enemy and denied Al Qaeda a safe haven while building schools, sending supplies and providing medical care,” he said. “You kept America safe from further terror attacks, provided two decades of security and opportunity for millions and made America proud.”

Many of the gains ushered in by the two-decade U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan — more opportunities for women, more girls enrolled in school, a freer news media environment — could be at risk under the Taliban.

The hard-line Islamist group banned popular music and carried out public executions when it ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, and as an insurgent movement it was known for suicide bombings that killed thousands of civilians and members of ethnic and religious minorities.

Mr. Bush called on the Biden administration to take in more Afghan refugees and speed the process of evacuating Afghans and U.S. citizens threatened by the Taliban. He urged the U.S. government to “cut the red tape.”

“We have the responsibility and the resources to secure safe passage for them now, without bureaucratic delay,” he said.

Indian nationals aboard an Indian military aircraft at the airport in Kabul  on Tuesday.
Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

India’s government said on Tuesday that it would prioritize taking in Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan — a move that drew comparisons to a contentious 2019 citizenship law, enacted under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that discriminates against Muslims.

The country’s home ministry said it would introduce “emergency visas” to allow Afghans to stay in India for six months. It did not say whether Muslims, who make up the majority of those seeking to leave Afghanistan as the Taliban take over, would also be considered.

“We are in constant touch with the Sikh and Hindu community leaders in Kabul,” S. Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, said on Twitter. “Their welfare will get our priority attention.”

That distinction prompted condemnation from some corners.

“Ashamed that the government of India response now is to look at desperate Afghan refugees not as humans fleeing persecution and sure death, but from the view of whether or not they’re Muslim,” Kavita Krishnan, an opposition politician said on Twitter.

India also drew criticism after numerous seats were left empty on an Air Force flight on Tuesday that evacuated Indian citizens and officials from the country’s embassy in Kabul.

Officials in New Delhi have indicated that the country will “stand by” the Afghans who worked closely with the Indian government and its mission in Afghanistan. It is not clear whether their religious status would be a factor in that process.

A spokesman for the ministry of external affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

India has previously granted visas of a longer duration to Afghans fleeing persecution, irrespective of their religion. Many Afghans migrated to India when the Taliban took over about two decades ago. Some have settled in New Delhi, where a shopping district popularly named “Little Kabul” comes alive every evening with stalls selling traditional food.

U.S. and Afghan officials say that India’s archrival, Pakistan, has permitted free movement to Taliban leaders, and that the country continues to serve as a haven where fighters and their families can receive medical care.

But experts say that India is cautiously navigating its relationship with Afghanistan’s new leaders. Indian diplomats recently made efforts to engage with the Taliban as part of the U.S.-led talks in Doha, Qatar.

Some in India have urged their government to engage directly with the Taliban. Vivek Katju, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, told The Wire news outlet last week that the country had become a “bystander” in Afghanistan and that India’s leaders did not know “which way to turn” anymore.

“Engagement with the Taliban should happen,” Mr. Katju said in a telephone interview with The New York Times on Tuesday. “The mechanics of the engagement should be such that it should be open and direct.”

For its part, Pakistan’s leadership has stopped short of hailing the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

“When you adopt someone’s culture, you believe it to be superior and you end up becoming a slave to it,” Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Monday in a veiled reference to the United States and Western culture. “In Afghanistan, they have broken the shackles of slavery,” Mr. Khan said at an appearance in Islamabad, “but the slavery of the mind does not break away.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has been in contact with several of his counterparts around the world to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
Credit…Pool photo by Patrick Semansky

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is making a flurry of calls to his overseas counterparts, an apparent effort to defend the U.S. military withdrawal that has sent Afghanistan sliding back into chaos.

Mr. Blinken spoke to foreign ministers from nations including Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey on Monday amid a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan that threatens to undo 20 years of American engagement in the country and could embolden the United States’ regional rivals.

The State Department offered few details of the call between Mr. Blinken and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, other than to say that the two had discussed security in Afghanistan and their respective efforts to get their citizens to safety.

But the Chinese government took the opportunity to criticize the United States. Its foreign ministry said in a statement that Mr. Yi had told Mr. Blinken that the hasty U.S. withdrawal had “a serious negative impact” in Afghanistan. Mr. Yi also reiterated a standard Chinese government talking point, saying that applying foreign models to countries with different histories and cultural conditions doesn’t work, according to the statement.

In China, the situation in Afghanistan has been a source of concern about instability in the region. China shares a short, remote border with Afghanistan, which under the Taliban served as a haven for Uyghur extremists from Xinjiang, the far western Chinese region.

Some cheered the fall of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, seeing a sign of American weakness. In a caustic editorial published on Monday, The Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the ruling Communist Party, said that the Taliban’s breakneck ascent had severely undermined American credibility.

It suggested that Washington’s abandonment of Kabul should be a warning sign for Taiwan, the democratic island that is supported by the United States and that China considers a rogue territory.

The State Department said Mr. Blinken had also spoken with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov. Tass, the Russian state news agency, reported that the two had discussed the security situation in Afghanistan, the humanitarian challenges in the country and Moscow’s desire for law and order to prevail.

For some critics of the U.S. withdrawal, the collapse of Afghanistan’s democratically elected government is particularly concerning as Beijing and Moscow seek to exert their influence in the world.

In a nationwide address on Monday, President Biden argued that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was complete and that nation-building had not been the initial goal.

“Our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely,” he said.

The State Department said Mr. Blinken had also spoken with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi of Pakistan, which for decades has served as a sanctuary for the Taliban.

While some former military officials in Pakistan have applauded the Taliban’s victory, a collapse in Afghanistan carries risks for Pakistan, including a possible influx of refugees. It could also provide a lift to jihadist movements that target Pakistan’s government.

An Afghan Air Force helicopter landing in Helmand Province in May. Aircraft were once the jewels of the U.S. aid program to the Afghan military.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — The U.S.-supplied Afghan Air Force took to the skies for a final flight overnight Sunday to Monday — not to attack the Taliban, as it had so many times before, but to save some of its planes and pilots from capture as the insurgents took control of Afghanistan.

At least six military aircraft left the country in a flight for safety in former Soviet states to the north. Five landed in Tajikistan, the Tajik authorities said. One plane was shot down in Uzbekistan, although its two pilots were reported to have parachuted and survived.

The departure of some of the Afghan Air Force’s planes, once the jewels of the American aid program to the Afghan military, kept them and their airmen out of Taliban hands.

It also added to the chaos in the skies in and around Afghanistan. Dozens of passenger planes that have taken off from Hamid Karzai International Airport also flew to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, neighboring countries with strong cultural ties to Afghanistan. A total of 46 airliners had departed by Monday morning, carrying asylum seekers, many of whom were employees of the airport, Tolo News, an Afghan news agency, reported.

A spokesman for the Uzbek military confirmed that it had shot down an airplane that traveled without permission into the country’s airspace. It did not specify the type of plane, but pictures of the wreckage suggested that it was a Super Tucano, a turboprop light attack aircraft made by the Brazilian company Embraer and provided by the United States to Afghanistan, according to Paul Hayes, director of Ascend, a U.K.-based aviation safety consultancy.

The Uzbek news media posted videos showing a pilot in a green flight suit, lying on the ground and receiving medical care.

In Tajikistan, the Ministry of Emergency Situations said three Afghan military airplanes and two military helicopters carrying 143 soldiers and airmen had been allowed to land after transmitting distress signals.

“Tajikistan received an SOS signal, and after this in accordance with international obligations the country decided to allow landings,” a ministry spokesman said, according to Interfax.

It was unclear what would happen to the aircraft now in Tajikistan. Afghan pilots had been targets of particular hatred by the Taliban and risked assassination.

The shoot-down in Uzbekistan and the Tajik authorities’ emphasis on their neutrality in allowing landings reflected the hard response that Central Asian nations, worried about antagonizing the Taliban, have had to fleeing Afghan soldiers.

Uzbekistan last week allowed 84 soldiers to cross a bridge to safety but left many more behind. Tajikistan in June and July allowed fleeing soldiers to enter the country but deported nearly all of them back to Afghanistan.

An Uzbek think tank close to the government has argued that what matters in Afghanistan are stability and economic development, whoever is charge.

“They say, ‘We are ready to accept any centralized force that can help Afghanistan,’” Daniel Kiselyov, the editor of Fergana, a Russian-language news site focused on Central Asia, said in a telephone interview. “If the Taliban provides that, they are willing to work with the group.”

Lance Cpl. Travis F. Vuocolo outside a U.S. military base in Marja, Afghanistan, in May 2010.
Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Just weeks before U.S. forces were scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban swiftly returned to power in Kabul on Sunday, toppling the old government and driving thousands of people into a desperate race to escape.

President Ashraf Ghani fled the same day, and hours later, Taliban leaders took his place in the presidential palace. Thousands of Afghans sought refuge at Kabul’s international airport.

The collapse of the Afghan government, after the United States spent billions of dollatrs to support it and Afghan security forces, was a violent coda to the U.S. military mission in America’s longest war.

The planned U.S. withdrawal: In mid-April, President Biden said that all American troops would leave the country by Sept. 11.

Responding to critics of the withdrawal, he asked in July: “How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?”

The United States had planned to leave behind about 650 troops to secure its embassy in Kabul. By late Sunday, the State Department said that all embassy personnel had been evacuated to the airport.

Why the U.S. invaded Afghanistan: In 2001, President George W. Bush said the Taliban, which then governed most of the country, had rejected his demand to turn over Al Qaeda leaders who had planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from bases inside Afghanistan.

By December 2001, Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had fled to safety in Pakistan. That month the Taliban’s spokesman offered an unconditional surrender, which U.S. officials rejected.

How the battlefield evolved: In May 2003, U.S. officials announced an end to major combat operations. That year, the U.S. began shifting resources to the war in Iraq, which had been launched in March.

The Taliban rebuilt its forces, and in 2009 President Barack Obama began deploying thousands of more troops to Afghanistan. On Dec. 31, 2014, Mr. Obama ended major combat operations and the U.S. mission transitioned to training and assisting Afghan security forces.

A road map to peace? In 2018, the Trump administration opened formal negotiations with the Taliban that excluded the Afghan government.

In February 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban that called for all American forces to leave the country by May 1, 2021, though Mr. Biden later extended the deadline.

The goal was to create a road map to a lasting cease-fire between the Taliban and Afghan government. Because of their strong battlefield position and the U.S. troop withdrawal, the Taliban maintained the upper hand.

Taliban members gathered under a tree in March last year in Laghman Province, Afghanistan.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

This excerpt from a May 2020 dispatch by the Times correspondent Mujib Mashal provides context for how the Taliban managed to thrive during two decades of U.S. occupation. They gave up little of their extremist ideology in the process.

ALINGAR, Afghanistan — Under the shade of a mulberry tree, near grave sites dotted with Taliban flags, a top insurgent military leader in eastern Afghanistan acknowledged that the group had suffered devastating losses from American strikes and government operations over the past decade.

But those losses have changed little on the ground: The Taliban keep replacing their dead and wounded and delivering brutal violence.

“We see this fight as worship,” Mawlawi Mohammed Qais, the head of the Taliban’s military commission in Laghman Province, said as dozens of his fighters waited nearby on a hillside. “So if a brother is killed, the second brother won’t disappoint God’s wish — he’ll step into the brother’s shoes.”

The Taliban have outlasted a superpower through nearly 19 years of grinding war. And dozens of interviews with Taliban officials and fighters in three countries, as well as with Afghan and Western officials, illuminated the melding of old and new approaches and generations that helped them do it.

The insurgency came to embrace a system of terrorism planning and attacks that kept the Afghan government under withering pressure, and to expand an illicit funding engine built on crime and drugs despite its roots in austere Islamic ideology.

They have never explicitly renounced their past of harboring international terrorists, nor the oppressive practices toward women and minorities that defined their term in power in the 1990s. And the insurgents remain deeply opposed to the vast majority of the Western-supported changes in the country over the past two decades.

“We prefer the agreement to be fully implemented so we can have an all-encompassing peace,” Amir Khan Mutaqi, the chief of staff to the Taliban’s supreme leader, said in a rare interview in Doha, Qatar’s capital. “But we also can’t just sit here when the prisons are filled with our people, when the system of government is the same Western system, and the Taliban should just go sit at home.”

“No logic accepts that — that everything stays the same after all this sacrifice,” he said, adding, “The current government stands on foreign money, foreign weapons, on foreign funding.”

Taliban fighters in Kabul on Monday. The Taliban arose in the early 1990s amid the turmoil that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Here is a look at the origin of the Taliban; how they managed to take over Afghanistan not once, but twice; what they did when they first took control — and what that might reveal about their plans for this time.

The Taliban arose in the early 1990s amid the turmoil that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.

The Soviets were defeated by Islamic fighters known as the mujahedeen, a patchwork of insurgent factions. The country fell into warlordism, and a brutal civil war.

Against this backdrop, the Taliban, with their promise to put Islamic values first and to battle the corruption that drove the warlords’ fighting, quickly attracted a following. Over years of intense fighting, they took over most of the country.

When they were in power, the Taliban made Afghanistan a safe harbor for Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabia-born former mujahedeen fighter, while he built up a terrorist group with global designs: Al Qaeda.

On Sept 11, 2001, the group struck a blow that rattled the world, toppling the World Trade Center towers in New York and damaging the Pentagon in Washington. Thousands were killed.

President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. When the Taliban balked, the United States invaded.

The early days of Taliban control have seemed restrained in some places. But enough reports of brutality and intimidation have surfaced to send waves of refugees to the Kabul airport in a desperate attempt to flee.

In Kunduz, a major provincial capital, residents were unconvinced by promises of peace from their new rulers.

“I am afraid, because I do not know what will happen and what they will do,” one resident said.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this item misstated the year of the Sept. 11 attack. It was in 2001, not 2011.

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