KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) – The Taliban have blew up the statue of a Shiite militia leader who fought them during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, according to photos circulating on Wednesday, casting further doubt on their claims that they have become more moderate.
Every action the rebels take in their sudden sweep of power is closely watched. They insist they have changed and will not impose the same strict restrictions they did when they last ruled Afghanistan, all except for the abolition of women’s rights, public executions and bans on television and music.
They also promised not to seek revenge against those who opposed them.
But many Afghans remain deeply skeptical, and thousands are rushing to the airport and border to flee the country. Many others are hiding inside their homes, afraid that prisons and arms depots will be emptied during the rebel offensive across the country.
On Wednesday, groups of fighters carrying long rifles patrolled a well-to-do neighborhood in the capital, Kabul, which is home to many embassies as well as palaces of the Afghan elite. The Taliban have promised to maintain security, but many Afghans fear it as much as possible chaos.
In a rare and early display of the opposition, dozens gathered in the eastern city of Jalalabad and raised the Afghan national flag in an anti-Taliban demonstration, according to Salim Ahmed, a local resident. He said the Taliban fired in the air to disperse the crowd. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The rebels raised their flag – a white flag with Islamic inscriptions on it – in the lands they captured.
As Afghans and the international community look to see if the Taliban will live up to their promises, pictures of the destroyed statue have been circulating on social media. It depicts Abdul Ali Mazari, a militia leader killed by the Taliban in 1996, when Islamist militants seized power from rival warlords. Mazari was a champion of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority, Shiites who had been persecuted under the previous Sunni Taliban rule.
The statue stood in the central province of Bamiyan, where the Taliban badly blew up two colossal 1,500-year-old Buddha statues carved into a mountain in 2001, shortly before the US-led invasion that ousted them from power. The Taliban claimed that the Buddhas violated Islam’s prohibition of idolatry.
Another closely watched Taliban promise is their pledge to prevent Afghanistan from ever being used as a base for plotting terrorist attacks. This was enshrined in the 2020 peace deal with the Trump administration that paved the way for the withdrawal of US troops, the last of whom are supposed to leave at the end of the month.
When the Taliban were last in power they harbored Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda while they were planning the September 11, 2001 attacks. US officials fear that Al Qaeda and other groups may reconstitute themselves in Afghanistan now that the Taliban are back in power.
The Taliban has vowed to form an “inclusive Islamic government” and is holding talks with former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government. Karzai’s spokesman, Muhammad Yusuf Saha, said initial meetings with Taliban officials would facilitate final negotiations with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top political leader.
Pictures circulated online on Wednesday showed Karzai and Abdullah meeting with Anas Haqqani, a top leader of the powerful Taliban movement. The United States designated the Haqqani network a terrorist group in 2012, and its participation in a future government could lead to international sanctions.
Amid the uncertainty, thousands of Afghans have attempted to flee the country in recent days, and the United States and its allies have struggled to manage the chaotic withdrawal from the country. The Taliban took control of the civilian side of Kabul International Airport on Tuesday and used force to try to control the crowds.
Hundreds of people walked out of the airport early Wednesday morning. The Taliban demanded to see the documents before allowing the rare passenger to enter. Not many people outside seemed to have passports, and every time I opened the gate even an inch, dozens tried to break in. The Taliban occasionally fired warning shots to disperse them.
Meanwhile, the US embassy has moved to the military side of the airport, where it is coordinating the airlift of diplomats, foreigners and Afghans who worked with the Americans and now fear reprisals.
The British government has said it will take in up to 5,000 Afghan refugees this year, and a total of 20,000 Afghans will be offered a way to settle in the UK in the coming years.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have worked with us to make Afghanistan a better place over the past 20 years,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said late Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the head of the Central Bank of Afghanistan said that the actual supply of US dollars is “close to zero”. Ajmal Ahmadi said on Twitter that Afghanistan has reserves of about $9 billion, but most of it is held outside the country, with about $7 billion in bonds, assets and US Federal Reserve gold.
Ahmadi said the country had not received a planned cash shipment amid the Taliban attack.
“The next shipment never arrived,” he wrote. “It appears that our partners have good intelligence about what is going to happen.”
He said the shortage of US dollars is likely to lead to a depreciation of the Afghan local currency, hurting the country’s poor. Afghans have been queuing outside ATMs for days, many withdrew their savings.
Ahmadi said the Taliban would struggle to access the country’s reserves due to international sanctions.
“The Taliban have won militarily – but now they must rule,” he wrote. “It’s not easy.”