In US Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb

[explosion] In one of the final acts of its 20-year war in Afghanistan, the United States fired a missile from a drone at a car in Kabul. It was parked in the courtyard of a home, and the explosion killed 10 people, including 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi and seven children, according to his family. The Pentagon claimed that Ahmadi was a facilitator for the Islamic State, and that his car was packed with explosives, posing an imminent threat to U.S. troops guarding the evacuation at the Kabul airport. “The procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.” What the military apparently didn’t know was that Ahmadi was a longtime aid worker, who colleagues and family members said spent the hours before he died running office errands, and ended his day by pulling up to his house. Soon after, his Toyota was hit with a 20-pound Hellfire missile. What was interpreted as the suspicious moves of a terrorist may have just been an average day in his life. And it’s possible that what the military saw Ahmadi loading into his car were water canisters he was bringing home to his family — not explosives. Using never-before seen security camera footage of Ahmadi, interviews with his family, co-workers and witnesses, we will piece together for the first time his movements in the hours before he was killed. Zemari Ahmadi was an electrical engineer by training. For 14 years, he had worked for the Kabul office of Nutrition and Education International. “NEI established a total of 11 soybean processing plants in Afghanistan.” It’s a California based NGO that fights malnutrition. On most days, he drove one of the company’s white Toyota corollas, taking his colleagues to and from work and distributing the NGO’s food to Afghans displaced by the war. Only three days before Ahmadi was killed, 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghan civilians died in an Islamic State suicide attack at the airport. The military had given lower-level commanders the authority to order airstrikes earlier in the evacuation, and they were bracing for what they feared was another imminent attack. To reconstruct Ahmadi’s movements on Aug. 29, in the hours before he was killed, The Times pieced together the security camera footage from his office, with interviews with more than a dozen of Ahmadi’s colleagues and family members. Ahmadi appears to have left his home around 9 a.m. He then picked up a colleague and his boss’s laptop near his house. It’s around this time that the U.S. military claimed it observed a white sedan leaving an alleged Islamic State safehouse, around five kilometers northwest of the airport. That’s why the U.S. military said they tracked Ahmadi’s Corolla that day. They also said they intercepted communications from the safehouse, instructing the car to make several stops. But every colleague who rode with Ahmadi that day said what the military interpreted as a series of suspicious moves was just a typical day in his life. After Ahmadi picked up another colleague, the three stopped to get breakfast, and at 9:35 a.m., they arrived at the N.G.O.’s office. Later that morning, Ahmadi drove some of his co-workers to a Taliban-occupied police station to get permission for future food distribution at a new displacement camp. At around 2 p.m., Ahmadi and his colleagues returned to the office. The security camera footage we obtained from the office is crucial to understanding what happens next. The camera’s timestamp is off, but we went to the office and verified the time. We also matched an exact scene from the footage with a timestamp satellite image to confirm it was accurate. A 2:35 p.m., Ahmadi pulls out a hose, and then he and a co-worker fill empty containers with water. Earlier that morning, we saw Ahmadi bring these same empty plastic containers to the office. There was a water shortage in his neighborhood, his family said, so he regularly brought water home from the office. At around 3:38 p.m., a colleague moves Ahmadi’s car further into the driveway. A senior U.S. official told us that at roughly the same time, the military saw Ahmadi’s car pull into an unknown compound 8 to 12 kilometers southwest of the airport. That overlaps with the location of the NGO’s office, which we believe is what the military called an unknown compound. With the workday ending, an employee switched off the office generator and the feed from the camera ends. We don’t have footage of the moments that followed. But it’s at this time, the military said that its drone feed showed four men gingerly loading wrapped packages into the car. Officials said they couldn’t tell what was inside them. This footage from earlier in the day shows what the men said they were carrying — their laptops one in a plastic shopping bag. And the only things in the trunk, Ahmadi’s co-workers said, were the water containers. Ahmadi dropped each one of them off, then drove to his home in a dense neighborhood near the airport. He backed into the home’s small courtyard. Children surrounded the car, according to his brother. A U.S. official said the military feared the car would leave again, and go into an even more crowded street or to the airport itself. The drone operators, who hadn’t been watching Ahmadi’s home at all that day, quickly scanned the courtyard and said they saw only one adult male talking to the driver and no children. They decided this was the moment to strike. A U.S. official told us that the strike on Ahmadi’s car was conducted by an MQ-9 Reaper drone that fired a single Hellfire missile with a 20-pound warhead. We found remnants of the missile, which experts said matched a Hellfire at the scene of the attack. In the days after the attack, the Pentagon repeatedly claimed that the missile strike set off other explosions, and that these likely killed the civilians in the courtyard. “Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” “Because there were secondary explosions, there’s a reasonable conclusion to be made that there was explosives in that vehicle.” But a senior military official later told us that it was only possible to probable that explosives in the car caused another blast. We gathered photos and videos of the scene taken by journalists and visited the courtyard multiple times. We shared the evidence with three weapons experts who said the damage was consistent with the impact of a Hellfire missile. They pointed to the small crater beneath Ahmadi’s car and the damage from the metal fragments of the warhead. This plastic melted as a result of a car fire triggered by the missile strike. All three experts also pointed out what was missing: any evidence of the large secondary explosions described by the Pentagon. No collapsed or blown-out walls, including next to the trunk with the alleged explosives. No sign that a second car parked in the courtyard was overturned by a large blast. No destroyed vegetation. All of this matches what eyewitnesses told us, that a single missile exploded and triggered a large fire. There is one final detail visible in the wreckage: containers identical to the ones that Ahmadi and his colleague filled with water and loaded into his trunk before heading home. Even though the military said the drone team watched the car for eight hours that day, a senior official also said they weren’t aware of any water containers. The Pentagon has not provided The Times with evidence of explosives in Ahmadi’s vehicle or shared what they say is the intelligence that linked him to the Islamic State. But the morning after the U.S. killed Ahmadi, the Islamic State did launch rockets at the airport from a residential area Ahmadi had driven through the previous day. And the vehicle they used … … was a white Toyota. The U.S. military has so far acknowledged only three civilian deaths from its strike, and says there is an investigation underway. They have also admitted to knowing nothing about Ahmadi before killing him, leading them to interpret the work of an engineer at a U.S. NGO as that of an Islamic State terrorist. Four days before Ahmadi was killed, his employer had applied for his family to receive refugee resettlement in the United States. At the time of the strike, they were still awaiting approval. Looking to the U.S. for protection, they instead became some of the last victims in America’s longest war. “Hi, I’m Evan, one of the producers on this story. Our latest visual investigation began with word on social media of an explosion near Kabul airport. It turned out that this was a U.S. drone strike, one of the final acts in the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Our goal was to fill in the gaps in the Pentagon’s version of events. We analyzed exclusive security camera footage, and combined it with eyewitness accounts and expert analysis of the strike aftermath. You can see more of our investigations by signing up for our newsletter.”

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First Flight From Kabul Is Hailed as Positive Step Amid Troubling Signs

KABUL, Afghanistan — Ten days after the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan came to an end, a lone jetliner lifted off from Kabul’s airport on Thursday, the first international passenger flight since American forces ended their 20-year presence in the country.

The departure of the chartered Qatar Airways Boeing 777, with scores of Americans, Canadians and Britons on board, was hailed by some as a sign that Taliban-ruled Afghanistan might be poised to re-engage with the world, even as reports emerged that the group was intensifying its crackdown on dissent.

“Kabul Airport is now operational,” Mutlaq bin Majed Al-Qahtani, a special envoy from Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a news conference on the tarmac.

In recent days, Qatari and Turkish personnel worked with the Taliban to repair damage and make the airport basically functional again. But just more than a week ago, the facility was a scene of frantic desperation as people jockeyed to find seats on the last commercial and military planes out.

a suicide bombing attack at the gates of the airport killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban who joined the Qatari envoy at the news conference, said that the resumption of international flights would be critical to ensuring that much-needed aid continued to flow into the country.

China, making cautious overtures to its unstable neighbor, has pledged to give $30 million in food and other aid to the new government. But China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, also urged the Taliban to work to contain terrorist groups.

The United Nations warned on Thursday that the freezing of billions of dollars in Afghan assets to keep it out of Taliban hands would inevitably have devastating economic consequences.

Deborah Lyons, the U.N. special envoy on Afghanistan, told the U.N. Security Council that the international community needed to find way to make these funds available to the country, with safeguards to prevent misuse by the Taliban, “to prevent a total breakdown of the economy and social order.”

a statement. “Afghans who have taken to the streets, understandably fearful about the future, are being met with intimidation, harassment and violence — particularly directed at women.”

U.S. officials said that the Americans on board the flight from Kabul on Thursday were considered the “most interested” in getting out, but said other Americans in Afghanistan would have other opportunities to leave.

Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who sits on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, was cautiously optimistic on Thursday morning about Americans elsewhere in Afghanistan being able to depart from the Kabul airport, although he noted the journey could be “treacherous and difficult.” But he said it was still unclear how many who wanted to leave remained in Afghanistan, or how they would get to the capital.

“I don’t want to sound like I have a great deal of confidence in the Taliban,” Mr. King said, adding, “All I can say is that it appears that, thus far, the Taliban has honored their commitment to allow Americans to leave.”

While the flight Thursday appeared to be a step toward resolving a diplomatic impasse that has left scores of Americans and other international workers stranded in Afghanistan, it was not clear if the Taliban would allow the tens of thousands of Afghans who once helped the U.S. government and now qualify for emergency U.S. visas to leave.

Taliban and foreign officials have said that Afghans with dual citizenship would be allowed to leave, but it was unclear whether any were on the first flight.

It also remained unclear whether charter flights from the airport in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where dozens of Americans and hundreds of Afghans were waiting to leave the country, would be allowed to fly.

In recent days, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has said that the Taliban are to blame for the grounded flights, and that they claim some passengers on the manifesto do not have the proper documentation.

Mr. Price, the State Department spokesman, said the United States had “pulled every lever” to persuade the Taliban to allow flights to depart from Mazar-i-Sharif carrying not only American citizens and legal residents but also Afghans considered to be at high risk.

“It continues to be our contention that these individuals should be allowed to depart,” he said. “At the first possible opportunity.”

Paul Mozur and Marc Santora contributed reporting.

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Taliban Appoint Stalwarts to Top Government Posts

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban announced a caretaker government on Tuesday, taking a major step in re-establishing their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and empowering many of the movement’s stalwarts from their regime in the 1990s.

After weeks of assurances from Taliban leaders that the movement would offer a more moderate and inclusive style of governing, most of the acting appointments on Tuesday were of senior figures who served in similar roles decades ago — a sign that the group’s conservative and theocratic core remain largely unchanged. All were men, and several are listed by the United States and United Nations as global terrorists.

“I assure all our countrymen that these officials will work hard to uphold Islamic rules and Shariah law,” Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, the movement’s supreme leader, said in a written statement handed out at a news conference in Kabul. “The Islamic Emirate needs the continued support of its people to rebuild the ruined country together.”

The Taliban made clear that more appointments would be coming, extending a process that has already stretched for weeks since the group suddenly seized national control last month.

“Guantánamo Five.” They were held at the American detainment camp at Guantánamo Bay for 13 years before being exchanged in 2014 for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier captured by the Taliban.

In order to govern, the Taliban will need to secure aid, which has been frozen by the United States and other nations. Yet U.S. sanctions against some cabinet members, including Mr. Haqqani and his uncle, Khalil Haqqani, appointed acting minister of refugees and repatriation — both listed as leaders of the terrorist-designated Haqqani network — will make that a difficult proposition.

Another factor will be foreign governments, lenders and aid organizations who are waiting to see the fate of the opposition and whether the Taliban will respect rights for women and ethnic and religious minorities. Just hours before the Taliban announced their new government posts, in fact, their fighters were on Kabul’s streets violently breaking up a peaceful demonstration for the second time in less than a week.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

As they marched on Tuesday morning, they carried a banner with a single word: “Freedom.”

The protests are happening as the Taliban cement their military grip on the country as well, announcing on Monday that they had seized the capital of restive Panjshir Province.

Afghanistan also faces a worsening humanitarian crisis. Basic services like electricity are under threat, while the country has been buffeted by food and cash shortages.

Thousands of Afghans are still desperately trying to flee the country, even as the United States works to evacuate dozens of its citizens. At a news conference in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said U.S. officials were “working around the clock” to ensure that charter flights carrying Americans can depart Afghanistan safely.

One senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fact that the Taliban took more than three weeks to announce even a transitional government, despite pressing need to reestablish services and economic functions, could be taken as a sign that “they weren’t really ready, and they didn’t have a plan.”

The appointed officials, who were all men, were also notable for including only a few non-Pashtuns, despite the country’s ethnic diversity and the Taliban’s promises of inclusive government.

At the news conference naming the new cabinet, the chief Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, who was named deputy information and culture minister, stressed the transitional nature of the government.

“This is an acting cabinet appointed to handle current affairs, and we are preparing the foundations of government and state-building,” he said. “In the near future, the role of the people’s participation and the shuras will be developed.”

Taliban officials said that a nationwide gathering of religious scholars and elders is still being planned in order to confirm Sheikh Haibatullah, a native of Kandahar Province and a widely respected religious scholar within the movement, as Afghanistan’s supreme leader.

Reporting was contributed by Wali Arian, Sami Sahak, Mujib Mashal, Adam Nossiter, Michael Crowleyand Farnaz Fassihi.

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Restoration of Kabul’s Closed Airport Begins as Some Afghan Aid Resumes

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s plunge into chaos, isolation and near-destitution under its newly ascendant Taliban rulers appeared to slow on Thursday, with the first significant moves to salvage Kabul’s inoperable airport, an increased flow of U.N. aid and word that international money transfers had resumed to the country, where many banks are shuttered.

But these developments did not signal any diminished suspicion toward the Taliban, the hard-line movement of Islamic extremists, many of them on terrorist watch lists, who seized power last month after two decades of war against an American-led military coalition and the government the United States had propped up.

And despite expectations that the Taliban leaders now ensconced in Kabul’s presidential palace would formally announce the makeup of a new government on Thursday, the anticipated announcement was delayed.

ended on Monday night. The airport remained closed to the public on Thursday, its hangars strewn with debris and some aircraft damaged by shrapnel, bullets and vandalism, but the Taliban permitted reporters inside, where security personnel and technicians from Qatar who had been sent to help reopen the airport were busy.

Teams of Qataris ferried back and forth in armored Land Cruisers at the airport’s VIP terminal under a giant billboard of Ashraf Ghani, the former president who fled abroad on Aug. 15 as Taliban fighters entered Kabul all but unopposed.

“The airport will open very soon,” said Daoud Sharifi, the chief operating officer of Kam Air, Afghanistan’s largest privately owned airline, which basically shut down even before the Taliban triumphed more than two weeks ago.

Western Union announced that it was resuming money transfers to Afghanistan, enabling customers from 200 countries and territories to “once again send money to their loved ones in the country.” Western Union, which had halted the transfers a few weeks ago, took the step as the U.S. Treasury Department said American financial institutions could process personal remittances.

Such remittances from the Afghan diaspora, a crucial source of income and foreign currency in Afghanistan, had basically stopped. At the same time, financial institutions in the United States and elsewhere have prevented the Taliban from gaining access to Afghan government bank reserves and other financial assets.

The dearth of cash in Afghanistan has become an acute source of desperation, seen in the lines of customers queued outside banks in the prelude and aftermath of the Taliban takeover. It also represents a quandary for the United States, which does not want to be seen as penalizing ordinary Afghans, many of them still in shock over the abrupt U.S. departure.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

Despite the Taliban’s effort to project an image of responsibility in reopening Kabul’s airport, enormous challenges remain not just for that facility but for basic aviation security. Most foreign carriers are now avoiding Afghanistan’s air space, depriving it of yet another important source of income: overflight fees, which countries charge airlines for permission to fly over their territory.

Both of Afghanistan’s carriers — Kam Air and the state-owned Ariana Airlines — are crippled for now.

In a recent interview from Doha, Qatar, Farid Paikar, the chief executive of Kam Air, said his airline had been reeling from heavy losses in the months leading up to the tumult during the Kabul airport evacuation, which left two of its aircraft damaged. He also said the airport’s aviation control systems had been damaged and that many Kam Air employees, including foreign pilots, engineers and technicians, had been forced to flee.

“It will take so long to reactivate all these systems and the terminal,” Mr. Paikar said. “The international community should help us with this, but I don’t know if they will be interested.”

A former Ariana official said three of that carrier’s four aircraft had been damaged at the Kabul airport, along with many computer and aviation systems.

An interview with an airport security guard who managed to flee to Doha in the evacuation offered a vivid account of the scene the day after Kabul fell to the Taliban, basically describing it as a total breakdown in authority.

The security guard, Gulman, who identified himself by only one name for fear of reprisal, said crowds of Afghans had poured onto the tarmac, clambering to board any departing flights. Windows of grounded Kam Air planes were cracked and seats torn apart, he said.

But the biggest blow to the airport’s viability, he said, were the employees who joined the frenzy of others scrambling to leave: security guards, airline crews and air traffic controllers who abandoned their posts.

Gulman said he had arrived at work expecting to inspect bags at his scanner as usual. Instead, he found every other luggage scanner abandoned and the uniforms of his colleagues scattered on the floor.

For half an hour, Gulman said, he stood at his usual post, debating what to do before another colleague arrived and convinced him that the two of them — having gotten past the crowds at the airport gate because of their security guard uniforms — should also board a flight.

Sharif Hassan and Najim Rahim contributed reporting.

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U.S. Launches Strike on ISIS-K as Bombing’s Death Toll Soars

The U.S. military said on Friday night that it had launched its first reprisal strike for the devastating suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport the day before, using a drone to target and apparently kill a planner for the group that claimed responsibility for the deaths of as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

“U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner,” Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement, referring to the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, also known as Islamic State Khorasan.

“The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan,” Captain Urban said. “Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”

The attack at the airport on Thursday was one of the deadliest bombings in the nearly two decades since the U.S.-led invasion. American officials believe “another terror attack in Kabul is likely,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Friday afternoon. “The threat is ongoing and it is active. Our troops are still in danger.”

attack also killed 13 U.S. service members, and one of the first to be identified was Rylee McCollum, 20, a Marine who had been on his first overseas deployment, according to his father. He was one of 10 Marines, two soldiers, and one Navy medic killed in the attack, according to defense officials.

ISIS-K, instead saying it was just one. The explosion hit right near the airport’s Abbey Gate, at a security chokepoint that squeezed together an enormous crowd that U.S. troops were checking for entry.

It was not only fear that trimmed the crowd at the airport Friday, what had been a constant mass since the Taliban assumed power nearly two weeks ago. Taliban fighters with Kalashnikov rifles kept people farther away from the airport’s entrance gates, guarding checkpoints with trucks and at least one Humvee.

Flights to evacuate people already within the airport resumed soon after the bombing. But the airport itself was largely locked down on Friday.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

Both exercises — the walk and the nudging — are proving to be challenges. In the normally bustling and noisy Shahr-e Naw neighborhood, once alive with street vendors and jostling pedestrians, there is now an unsettling silence. And so far his encounters with the Taliban have not yielded the results he had hoped for.

on pace to fall well short of providing an exit for everyone who wants to leave.

That left Afghans scrambling to find a way out of the country.

In the southwest, thousands of people have been trying to flee into Pakistan, gathering daily near the Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing, the only one designated for refugees. In the west, several thousand people a day are also crossing into Iran, U.N. officials said.

Daniel Victor, Zia ur-Rehman, Jim Huylebroek, Megan Specia, Fahim Abed, Jack Healy and Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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Suicide Bombers in Kabul Kill Dozens, Including 13 U.S. Troops

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two explosions killed dozens of people, including at least 13 U.S. troops, ripping through the crowds outside Afghanistan’s main airport on Thursday, just hours after Western governments had warned of an imminent Islamic State attack and told their people to stay away from the airport.

The attack, by at least two suicide bombers, struck at the only avenue of escape for the thousands of foreign nationals and tens — or hundreds — of thousands of their Afghan allies who are trying to flee the country following the Taliban takeover and ahead of the final withdrawal of U.S. troops, set for next Tuesday.

Afghan health officials gave varying estimates of the toll at the international airport in Kabul, the capital — from at least 30 dead to more than 60, and from 120 wounded to 140 — while a Taliban spokesman cited at least 13 civilians killed and 60 wounded.

Islamic State Khorasan, the terrorist branch known as ISIS-K.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of its loyalists in Afghanistan.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

General McKenzie said it appeared that a suicide bomber, most likely wearing a concealed explosives vest, had made it through the checkpoints outside the airport, many of them run by Taliban soldiers, who are supposed to detect such attackers. He said he had no reason to believe that the Taliban, who are eager for the Americans to leave as quickly as possible, knowingly let the bomber through.

The chief Taliban spokesman, however, made a point of saying that the attack took place in an area where American forces controlled security.

The explosion hit at the airport gate, where U.S. troops screen people who are trying to get in. Gunfire followed, but it was not clear who was shooting. The general said American forces will work with the Taliban to keep crowds farther back from the airport gates, and to close some roads to thwart vehicle attacks.

“This is close-up war — the breath of the person you are searching is upon you,” General McKenzie said, adding, “I cannot tell you how impressed I am with the heroism” of the service members doing that perilous work.

“If we can find who’s associated with this, we will go after them,” he said.

Mr. Biden vowed, “we will respond with force and precision at our time” against the Islamic State leaders who ordered the attack. He added, “We have some reason to believe we know who they are.”

U.S. Marines at Abbey Gate had been working tirelessly for days, well aware that their time to help Afghans and U.S. citizens flee the country was running short as the Aug. 31 withdrawal date drew near. Ten of them were among the dead.

The State Department had identified about 6,000 Americans who were in Afghanistan on Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban began entering Kabul and the U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country. On Wednesday, the department said that figure was down to 1,500 and it was trying frantically to reach them all, telling them to get to the airport or sending helicopters to extract them.

But then the intelligence on an impending attack prompted the United States and NATO allies to tell people overnight not to approach the airport. Even so, by Thursday afternoon, the State Department said, about 500 more Americans had left the country, and hundreds more were awaiting evacuation, while some U.S. citizens had signaled that they do not intend to leave.

Early Friday morning, alarmed Kabul residents reported another series of explosions near the airport, setting off fears of another bombing attack. Taliban officials and Afghan journalists soon reported otherwise: It was the Americans, they said, destroying their own equipment as they prepared to leave Afghanistan.

Reporting was contributed by Jim Huylebroek, Victor Blue, Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim, Fatima Faizi, Helene Cooper, Michael Shear and Lara Jakes.

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Taliban Quash Afghanistan Protests, Tightening Grip on Country

The Taliban cracked down on protests that erupted in at least four cities in Afghanistan on Thursday and rounded up opponents despite promises of amnesty, even as fearful workers stayed home and thousands of people continued a frenzied rush to leave the country.

Even as the Taliban moved to assert control, hundreds of protesters took to the streets for a second day to rally against their rule, this time marching in Kabul, the capital, as well as other cities. Again, the Taliban met them with force, using gunfire and beatings to disperse crowds. And again the actions of Taliban foot soldiers undermined the leadership’s suggestions that, having taken power, they would moderate the brutality they have long been known for.

The police officers who served the old government have melted away, and instead armed Taliban fighters are operating checkpoints and directing traffic, administering their notions of justice as they see fit, with little consistency from one to another.

according to witnesses and a security assessment prepared for the United Nations. Though the Taliban have said there would be no reprisals, there have been arrests, property seizures and scattered reports of reprisal killings.

city after city with remarkable speed once most U.S. forces had withdrawn, brushed aside the demoralized and disorganized Afghan security forces, and swept into Kabul on Sunday. Now they are learning that while conquest may have been swift, governing a vibrant, freethinking society is not so easy.

The anti-Taliban protests have been a remarkable display of defiance of a group that has a long history of controlling communities through fear and meeting dissent with lethal force. The protests also offered evidence that while tens of thousands are now seeking escape, some of those left behind would try — for now, at least — to have a voice in the country’s direction, despite the growing crackdown.

independence from Britain in 1919. It was not clear whether the victims had been shot or had died in a stampede.

There were even demonstrators waving the flag in Kandahar, the southern city that is considered the birthplace of the Taliban. In the southeastern city of Khost, the group imposed a curfew, a day after demonstrations and clashes there. The protests on Thursday in Kabul included one near the presidential palace, and another that drew about 200 people before the Taliban used force to break it up.

The events, led primarily by young men and women, were a wholly new experience for Taliban insurgents who have spent the last 20 years mostly in the mountains and rural districts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the same name they used a generation ago.

The tricolor flag flown by the collapsed government, taken down by the Taliban and replaced by their own banner, has become a repeated flash point, with people in multiple cities beaten for displaying it. On Wednesday, the Taliban fired on demonstrators waving the flag in the eastern city of Jalalabad, with reports of two or three people killed.

she said on Twitter.

She added that after the Taliban spokesman’s first news briefing, held on Tuesday, when he insisted that the rights of the media and women would be respected, she had not expected much good to come.

“I had low expectations but now it has become clear that there is a gap between action and words,” Ms. Atakpal said.

Residents of Kabul were feeling their way under the new regime gingerly. The streets were quiet, largely empty of traffic, interrupted by occasional bursts of gunfire and the roar of American military planes patrolling and conducting the round-the-clock evacuation.

their origin story and their record as rulers.

One woman complained that popular Turkish television serials were no longer airing, after cable companies closed down their services. The Taliban, which banned all television during their previous time in power, have since embraced media as a propaganda tool, and cable companies were already anticipating new rules on morally acceptable content in accordance with the militants’ strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Mr. Shesta said he was deleting photos from his cellphone of him meeting with the former president, Ashraf Ghani, and other government officials, many of whom have fled the country. Mr. Ghani left the capital on Sunday, and several of his senior officials traveled to Turkey on Monday.

At the Kabul airport, which is still controlled by U.S. troops, the Taliban are in charge outside its blast walls and used force and intimidation to control access, beating people back and firing their rifles.

Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, cited multiple reports that the Taliban had a list of people to question and punish, as well as their locations. Military and police personnel and people who worked for investigative units of the toppled government were particularly at risk, according to the document, which was dated Wednesday.

Already, the Taliban were going door to door and “arresting and/or threatening to kill or arrest family members of target individuals unless they surrender themselves to the Taliban,” said the document, which was seen by The New York Times.

It contained a reproduced letter dated Aug. 16 from the Taliban to an unnamed counterterrorism official in Afghanistan who had worked with U.S. and British officials and then gone into hiding.

The letter instructed the official to report to the Military and Intelligence Commission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Kabul. If not, it warned, the official’s family members “will be treated based on Shariah law.”

Victor J. Blue, Helene Cooper and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.

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Taliban Promise Peace, but Doubt and Fear Persist

KABUL, Afghanistan — For the first time since retaking power in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s leaders on Tuesday sketched out what their control of the country could look like, promising peace at home and urging the world to look past their history of violence and repression.

“We don’t want Afghanistan to be a battlefield anymore — from today onward, war is over,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s longtime chief spokesman, in a news conference in Kabul, the capital.

Mr. Mujahid, a high-ranking leader, said the Taliban had declared a blanket amnesty, vowing no reprisals against former enemies. And the group has in some places appealed to civil servants — including women — to continue to go to work.

After days of uncertainty around the world over Afghanistan’s swift fall to a group notorious for its brutality, Mr. Mujahid’s words, delivered in a restrained tone, were a glimpse into a Taliban desire to portray themselves as ready to join the international mainstream.

frenzied rush to Kabul’s airport, which continued to be a scene of mass desperation and chaos two days after the Taliban entered the city. The group said its fighters were acting to restore order, but in some corners, they were also inflicting fear.

target of violence by the Taliban and other militants. Despite rampant fear about the Taliban’s intentions, the reporters directly challenged Mr. Mujahid’s promises.

“Do you think the people of Afghanistan will forgive you?” one reporter asked, noting the long campaign of Taliban bombings and attacks that claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. Another noted that Mr. Mujahid sat in the same spot occupied until last week by a government spokesman who was assassinated by the Taliban.

Mr. Mujahid, responding patiently, allowed that civilian deaths had been “unfortunate,” but said such were the fortunes of war. “Our families also suffered,” he added.

chaos at the airport, where U.S. troops shot and killed at least two people on Monday and others fell to their deaths trying to cling to a U.S. military transport as it took off, there were reports of several more deaths on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of people have flooded the airport in waves, trying their luck for a flight to anywhere.

While American troops controlled a large part of the airport, the Taliban took control of the approaches to it, and at times beat people with rifle butts and clubs to force back the crowds trying to get in. It was not always clear whether they were attempting to prevent people from reaching the airport, or simply prevent another lethal crush.

President Biden faced mounting criticism in Washington, including from fellow Democrats, over the stunning lack of preparation for the lightning advance of the Taliban and the collapse of government resistance, leading to confused and halting efforts to get Americans and their Afghan allies out of the country. Republicans said Mr. Biden was in too much of a hurry to withdraw U.S. forces, although he had postponed the date set by President Trump, who struck a deal with the Taliban.

“We didn’t need to be in this position; we didn’t need to be seeing these scenes at Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing a C-17,” said Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan.

declared on Twitter.

The Taliban attempted on Tuesday to project an image of being a force for stability, while tapping into the feared reputation their law enforcement and intelligence services acquired before the group was driven from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion. The Taliban intelligence chief for Kabul made a statement telling looters that his group was watching and making arrests.

treatment of women and girls under a resurgent Taliban has been one of the most acute concerns raised by their opponents in Afghanistan and by international rights groups.

“There will be no violence against women, no prejudice against woman,” Mr. Mujahid said Tuesday. But his assurances were vague. Women, he said, would be allowed to work and study and study “within the bounds of Islamic law.”

Similarly, he said the new Taliban needs and wants a free and independent press, which the old Taliban never tolerated — as long as it upholds Islamic and national values.

Mujib Mashal reported from Kabul, and Richard Perez-Peña from New York. Carlotta Gall and Ruhallah Khapalwak contributed reporting.

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Why the Afghan Military Collapsed So Quickly

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The surrenders seem to be happening as fast as the Taliban can travel.

In the past several days, the Afghan security forces have collapsed in more than 15 cities under the pressure of a Taliban advance that began in May. On Friday, officials confirmed that those included two of the country’s most important provincial capitals: Kandahar and Herat.

The swift offensive has resulted in mass surrenders, captured helicopters and millions of dollars of American-supplied equipment paraded by the Taliban on grainy cellphone videos. In some cities, heavy fighting had been underway for weeks on their outskirts, but the Taliban ultimately overtook their defensive lines and then walked in with little or no resistance.

This implosion comes despite the United States having poured more than $83 billion in weapons, equipment and training into the country’s security forces over two decades.

Building the Afghan security apparatus was one of the key parts of the Obama administration’s strategy as it sought to find a way to hand over security and leave nearly a decade ago. These efforts produced an army modeled in the image of the United States’ military, an Afghan institution that was supposed to outlast the American war.

in an accumulation of losses that started even before President Biden’s announcement that the United States would withdraw by Sept. 11.

It began with individual outposts in rural areas where starving and ammunition-depleted soldiers and police units were surrounded by Taliban fighters and promised safe passage if they surrendered and left behind their equipment, slowly giving the insurgents more and more control of roads, then entire districts. As positions collapsed, the complaint was almost always the same: There was no air support or they had run out of supplies and food.

But even before that, the systemic weaknesses of the Afghan security forces — which on paper numbered somewhere around 300,000 people, but in recent days have totaled around just one-sixth of that, according to U.S. officials — were apparent. These shortfalls can be traced to numerous issues that sprung from the West’s insistence on building a fully modern military with all the logistical and supply complexities one requires, and which has proved unsustainable without the United States and its NATO allies.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, an infamous warlord and a former Afghan vice president who has survived the past 40 years of war by cutting deals and switching sides.

On Friday, another prominent Afghan warlord and former governor, Mohammad Ismail Khan, who had resisted Taliban attacks in western Afghanistan for weeks and rallied many to his cause to push back the insurgent offensive, surrendered to the insurgents.

the Taliban were breaching the outskirts of the southern city of Lashkar Gah, a hodgepodge group of border force soldiers were holding the line. The police officers who were supposed to be defending the area had long surrendered, retreated or had been paid off by the Taliban, as has occurred in many parts of the country over the past year.

Equipped with rifles and machine guns, some dressed in uniforms, others not, the border soldiers beamed when their stubble-bearded captain, Ezzatullah Tofan, arrived at their shell-racked position, a house abandoned during the fighting.

He always comes to the rescue, one soldier said.

Late last month, as the Taliban pushed into Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province, an outpost called their headquarters elsewhere in the city asking for reinforcements. In an audio recording obtained by The New York Times, the senior commander on the other end asked them to stay and fight.

Captain Tofan was bringing reinforcements, he said, and to hold on a little longer. That was around two weeks ago.

By Friday, despite the Afghan military’s tired resistance, repeated flights of reinforcements and even American B-52 bombers overhead, the city was in the hands of the Taliban.

Taimoor Shah and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi contributed from Kabul. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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