Days Before Germans Vote, Merkel Is Where She Didn’t Want to Be: On the Stump

STRALSUND, Germany — Only days before Germans cast their ballots for a new Parliament and with it a new government and leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the campaign trail this week — further proof that her conservatives are in a perilous position.

Ms. Merkel, of course, is no longer a candidate. She is stepping down and had hoped to stay away from the race. But instead she spent Tuesday in her own district stumping for the struggling candidate for her Christian Democratic Union, Armin Laschet. She even quipped about her smaller-than-average shoe size, hoping to convince voters that those shoes are best filled by Mr. Laschet.

The Green party, the unexpected early leaders in the race, are in third place at the moment.

The Social Democrats are running one of their strongest election campaign in years, marked by clear messaging on progressive issues from increasing the minimum wage to creating more affordable housing. And their front-runner candidate, Olaf Scholz, has been selling himself as the best fit for Ms. Merkel’s shoes.

shot and killed a 20-year-old gas station attendant who refused the man service because he did not wear a mask.

Speaking to the several hundred people who had gathered late Tuesday on the wet cobblestones of the Old Market Square in this city on the Baltic Sea coast, which Ms. Merkel has represented since 1990, Mr. Laschet honored the victim, then chided the several dozen anti-vaccine demonstrators who had shown up to protest the government with shouts and whistles.

“We do not want this violence,” he said. But neither his condemnation nor his pledge to increase security elicited much applause. He also didn’t manage to silence the noise beyond the barriers.

The rally was meant to shore up support for Mr. Laschet, but for townspeople and tourists alike, it turned into an opportunity to catch a last glimpse of the woman whose outsize role in their country and in Europe has influenced their lives since November 2005.

Christine Braun, a member of the Christian Democrats in Stralsund, said that Mr. Laschet would be getting her vote, but he was not the reason she was standing in the driving rain on a chilly September night.

“I came to honor Ms. Merkel, our chancellor and representative,” she said, adding that throughout her 30 years representing the constituency, Ms. Merkel would visit regularly, attending meetings and engaging with the community. “She remained approachable and down-to-earth.”

Vilana Cassing and Tim Taugnitz, both students in their early 20s, were vacationing in Stralsund and saw the posters advertising the event and Ms. Merkel’s attendance. They decided to attend more out of curiosity to see the woman who had shaped their lives than out of political interest.

They described their political leanings as “leftist-Green,” saying they would vote on Sunday, but not for Mr. Laschet.

“I think it is good if the Christian Democrats go into opposition,” Mr. Taugnitz said.

That could happen. On Sunday, voters will go to the polls, though many may have already done so, with the pandemic resulting in an unusually high number of requests for mail-in ballots — a form of voting that has been around in Germany since 1957 and that organizers assure is safe.

Should the Social Democrats emerge as the strongest party, they would still need to find at least one partner to form a government. While that means that the roles could be reversed, with the Christian Democrats as the junior partners under Mr. Scholz, more likely is a center-left alliance led by the Social Democrats together with the Greens and the business friendly Free Democrats.

Mr. Laschet has been warning against the threat posed by such an alliance, seeking to paint the other parties as a danger to the prosperity that Germans have enjoyed under Ms. Merkel.

“It’s completely wrong what the S.P.D. and the Left and the Greens are planning,” Mr. Laschet told the crowd on Tuesday, referring to pledges to increase taxes on the country’s highest earners. “They should invest and create jobs.”

Ms. Merkel instead sought to praise Mr. Laschet and Georg Günther, who hopes to win the seat in Parliament that she is vacating after 30 years, for their achievements. She expressed confidence that both men would continue the course that she had set and urged her supporters to back them.

“Several times today I have reported my shoe size,” Ms. Merkel told the crowd in Stralsund. Nodding to Mr. Günther and smiling, she said that he could “manage” to fill her shoes — European size 38, or U.S. 7 and a half. Then she turned to Mr. Laschet and added, “he is the one who can do it,” at the chancellery.

Listening from the sidelines, Thilo Haberstroh, a native of the southwestern city of Karlsruhe who was in Stralsund on business and only happened on the rally by chance, said he wasn’t convinced that anyone in the running had what it takes to be the next chancellor of Germany.

“This was interesting, but none of them have really made an impression on me,” he said. “I still don’t know who I will get my vote on Sunday.”

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Germany’s Far Right Is Nowhere in the Election. But It’s ‘Here to Stay.’

BERLIN — They promised they would “hunt” the elites. They questioned the need for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin and described Muslim immigrants as “head scarf girls” and “knife men.”

Four years ago the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, arrived in the German Parliament like a wrecking ball, the first far-right party to win a place at the heart of Germany’s democracy since World War II. It was a political earthquake in a country that had once seen Hitler’s Nazi party rise from the fringes to win power in free elections.

Founded eight years ago as nationalist free-market protest party against the Greek bailout and the euro, the AfD has sharply shifted to the right.

The party seized on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome over a million migrants to Germany in 2015 and 2016, actively fanning fears of Islamization and migrant crime. Its noisy nationalism and anti-immigrant stance were what first catapulted it into Parliament and instantly turned it into Germany’s main opposition party.

But the party has struggled to expand its early gains during the past 18 months, as the pandemic and, more recently, climate change have shot to the top of the list of voters’ concerns — while its core issue of immigration has barely featured in this year’s election campaign.

The AfD has tried to jump on the chaos in Afghanistan to fan fears of a new migrant crisis. “Cologne, Kassel or Konstanz can’t cope with more Kabul,” one of the party’s campaign posters asserted. “Save the world? Sure. But Germany first!” another read.

At a recent election rally north of Frankfurt, Mr. Chrupalla demanded that lawmakers “abolish” the constitutional right to asylum. He also told the public broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Germany should be prepared to protect its borders, “if need be with armed force.”

None of this rhetoric has shifted the race, particularly because voters seem to have more fundamental concerns about the party’s aura of extremism. Some AfD leaders have marched with extremists in the streets, while among the party’s supporters are an eclectic array of conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazi sympathizers.

shot dead on his front porch by a well-known neo-Nazi. The killer later told the court that he had attended a high-profile AfD protest a year earlier.

Since then, a far-right extremist has attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle during a Yom Kippur service, leaving two dead and only narrowly failing to commit a massacre. Another extremist shot dead 9 mostly young people with immigrant roots in the western city of Hanau.

The AfD’s earlier rise in the polls stalled almost instantly after the Hanau attack.

“After these three attacks, the wider German public and media realized for the first time that the rhetoric of the AfD leads to real violence,” said Hajo Funke of the Free University in Berlin, who has written extensively about the party and tracks its evolution.

“It was a turning point,” he said. “They have come to personify the notion that words lead to deeds.”

Shortly after the Hanau attack, Thomas Haldenwang, the chief of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, placed elements of the AfD under surveillance for far-right extremism — even as the party’s lawmakers continued to work in Parliament.

“We know from German history that far-right extremism didn’t just destroy human lives, it destroyed democracy,” Mr. Haldenwang warned after announcing his decision in March last year. “Far-right extremism and far-right terrorism are currently the biggest danger for democracy in Germany.”

Today, the agency has classified about a third of all AfD members as extremist, including Mr. Chrupalla and Alice Weidel, the party’s other lead candidate. A court is reviewing whether the entire party can soon be placed under formal observation.

“The AfD is irrelevant in power-political terms,” said Mr. Funke. “But it is dangerous.”

Mr. Chrupalla, a decorator who occasionally takes the stage in his overalls, and Ms. Weidel, a suit-wearing former Goldman Sachs analyst and gay mother of two, have sought to counter that impression. As if to hammer home the point, the party’s main election slogan this year is: “Germany — but normal.”

A look through the party’s 207-page election program shows what “normal” means: The AfD demands Germany’s exit from the European Union. It calls for the abolition of any mandates to fight the coronavirus. It wants to return to the traditional German definition of citizenship based on blood ancestry. And it is the only party in Parliament that denies man-made climate change, while also calling for investment in coal and a departure from the Paris climate accord.

That the AfD’s polling numbers have barely budged for the past 18 months suggests that its supporters are not protest voters but Germans who subscribe to its ideas and ideology.

“The AfD has brought out into the open a small but very radical electorate that many thought we don’t have in this country,” said Mr. Quent, the sociologist. “Four years ago people were asking: ‘Where does this come from?’ In reality it was always there. It just needed a trigger.”

Mr. Quent and other experts estimate the nationwide ceiling of support for the party at around 14 percent. But in parts of the former Communist East, where the AfD has become a broad-based political force entrenched at the local level, it is often twice that — enough to make it the region’s second-strongest political force.

Among the under 60-year olds, Mr. Quent said, it has become No. 1.

“It’s only a question of time until AfD is the strongest party in the East,” Mr. Quent said.

That is why Mr. Chrupalla, whose constituency is in the eastern state of Saxony, the one state where the AfD already came first in 2017, predicts it will eventually become too big to bypass.

“In the East we are a people’s party, we are well-established at the local, city, regional and state level,” Mr. Chrupalla said. “In the East the middle class votes for the AfD. In the West, they vote for the Greens.”

Christopher F. Schuetze and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting.

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Prominent Chinese #MeToo Figure Vows to Appeal After Losing Case

A former television intern who became a prominent voice in China’s #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment has vowed to fight on after a court in Beijing ruled that she had not produced sufficient evidence in her harassment case against a star presenter.

The former intern, Zhou Xiaoxuan, told supporters and journalists outside the Haidian District court in Beijing that she would appeal after judges ruled against her claim late Tuesday night.

Ms. Zhou asserted in 2018 that Zhu Jun had assaulted her in a dressing room four years earlier. Mr. Zhu denied that accusation and sued Ms. Zhou, and she countersued him. Their legal battles became a focal case in China’s expanding movement against the sexual coercion of women.

The court in Beijing rejected Ms. Zhou’s case in a terse online statement that did not go into the substance of her claims. She had “tendered insufficient evidence to prove her assertion that a certain Zhu had engaged in sexual harassment,” the court stated.

crack their heads and spill blood” if they tried to stop its rise.

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  • Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has moved to rein in public protest and contention over women’s rights, and fewer such cases have burst onto the internet.

    An exception was in July, when the police detained Kris Wu, a popular Canadian Chinese singer, after an 18-year-old university student in Beijing accused him of offering young women like her help with their careers, and then pressing them to have sex. He has denied the accusations.

    Mr. Wu was formally arrested last month on suspicion of rape. His case became one in a number of scandals that have prompted the Chinese government to crack down on youth celebrity culture and warn actors and performers to stick to official rules for propriety.

    Ms. Zhou has been barred from Weibo, the popular Chinese social media service where her claims against Mr. Zhu first spread. (His lawsuit against her has still not gone to trial.)

    Traditional state-run media outlets were ordered not to cover Ms. Zhou’s claims and lawsuit, according to three journalists who received the instructions and asked for anonymity because of the risk of repercussions. But word of Ms. Zhou’s loss in court rippled across Chinese social media on Wednesday. Many reactions that remained on Weibo were critical of her, some accusing her of making up her claims and acting as a pawn for forces hostile to China. Her supporters said that, despite the setback, she had set a lasting example.

    “I was very disappointed, but it didn’t surprise me,” said Zheng Xi, 34, a feminist in Hangzhou, in eastern China. “Her persistence in the last three years has educated and enlightened many people.”

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    Reporters in Afghanistan Face an Intolerant Regime: ‘Everything Changed Overnight’

    Beloved shows removed from the airwaves. A television station cutting from a news report a story about a pregnant police officer who was reportedly fatally shot by the Taliban. A radio editor telling his colleagues to edit out anti-Taliban cheers from coverage of demonstrations in the capital.

    Afghanistan’s vibrant free press and media industry, once celebrated as a success story and labeled one of the country’s most important achievements of the past two decades, has abruptly been transformed after the Taliban takeover of the country. Now, its survival is threatened by physical assaults, self-censorship and a dwindling journalist population less than a month after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the capital, and began enforcing their hard-line Islamist policies.

    The Taliban’s crackdown on the free press was even more evident on Wednesday after two Afghan journalists were detained and violently assaulted for covering a protest in Kabul. Photos showed the backsides of both reporters covered with bruises and gashes from being whipped repeatedly with cables, sparking an international outcry.

    “The situation of free media is very critical,” said Neda, an anchor for a local television station in Kabul, identified by her nickname to protect her identity. “No one dares to ask the Taliban about their past wrongdoings and the atrocities they have committed.”

    the Taliban rounded up scores of demonstrators around Kabul and journalists covering the protests, subjecting them to abuse in overcrowded jails, according to journalists who were present. The crackdown on the demonstrations and the ensuing coverage followed a Taliban announcement Tuesday that protests would not be allowed without government approval. At least 19 journalists were detained on Tuesday and Wednesday, the United Nations said.

    “You’re lucky you have not been beheaded,” Taliban guards told one detained journalist as they kicked him in the head, Ravina Shamdasdani, a spokeswoman for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, told reporters.

    Reporters with Etilaat e Roz described being detained at the protests, then brought to a nearby police station where they were tied up and beaten with cables.

    Taqi Daryabi, one of the reporters, said about a half-dozen Taliban members handcuffed him behind his back when he was on the ground on his stomach, then began kicking and hitting him until he lost consciousness.

    “They beat so much that I couldn’t resist or move,” he said. “They forced me to the ground on my stomach, flogging me on my buttocks and back, and the ones who were in the front were kicking me in the face.”

    Reporters working for Tolo News, Ariana News, Pajhwok News Agency and several freelance journalists have also been detained and beaten by the Taliban in the past three weeks, according to local media reports.

    “The Taliban is quickly proving that earlier promises to allow Afghanistan’s independent media to continue operating freely and safely are worthless,” Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement Wednesday. “We urge the Taliban to live up to those earlier promises, to stop beating and detaining reporters doing their job.”

    On top of the dangerous environment, the flow of information from the government has slowed and become very limited. There used to be dozens of government spokesmen; now there are only a handful speaking for the new Taliban government, and they are less responsive than during the group’s insurgency.

    In the late 1990s, the Taliban imposed strict restrictions on the media, banning television and using the state-owned radio and newspapers as propaganda platforms. But the group promised greater openness toward freedom of expression once it seized power last month.

    “We will respect freedom of the press, because media reporting will be useful to society and will be able to help correct the leaders’ errors,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the acting deputy information and culture minister, told Reporters Without Borders last week. “We declare to the world that we recognize the importance of the role of the media.”

    Many Afghan journalists said those promises are just “words” by Taliban’s leaders, citing recent assaults on reporters in Kabul and elsewhere.

    “Press freedom is dead in Afghanistan,” said Mr. Quraishi, the media advocate. “And the society without a free press dies.”

    Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan. Nick Bruce contributed from Geneva.

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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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    Married Kremlin Spies, a Shadowy Mission to Moscow and Unrest in Catalonia

    BARCELONA, Spain — In the spring of 2019, an emissary of Catalonia’s top separatist leader traveled to Moscow in search of a political lifeline.

    The independence movement in Catalonia, the semiautonomous region in Spain’s northeast, had been largely crushed after a referendum on breaking away two years earlier. The European Union and the United States, which supported Spain’s effort to keep the country intact, had rebuffed the separatists’ pleas for support.

    But in Russia, a door was opening.

    In Moscow, the emissary, Josep Lluis Alay, a senior adviser to the self-exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, met with current Russian officials, former intelligence officers and the well-connected grandson of a K.G.B. spymaster. The aim was to secure Russia’s help in severing Catalonia from the rest of Spain, according to a European intelligence report, which was reviewed by The New York Times.

    recordings revealed a Russian plot to covertly finance the hard-right League party. In Britain, a Times investigation uncovered discussions among right-wing fringe figures about opening bank accounts in Moscow. And in Spain, the Russians have also offered assistance to far-right parties, according to the intelligence report.

    Whether Mr. Alay knew it or not, many of the officials he met in Moscow are involved in what has become known as the Kremlin’s hybrid war against the West. This is a layered strategy involving propaganda and disinformation, covert financing of disruptive political movements, hacking and leaking information (as happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election) and “active measures” like assassinations meant to erode the stability of Moscow’s adversaries.

    It is unclear what help, if any, the Kremlin has provided to the Catalan separatists. But Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow in 2019 were followed quickly by the emergence of a secretive protest group, Tsunami Democratic, which disrupted operations at Barcelona’s airport and cut off a major highway linking Spain to northern Europe. A confidential police report by Spain’s Guardia Civil, obtained by The Times, found that Mr. Alay was involved in the creation of the protest group.

    Unit 29155, which has been linked to attempted coups and assassinations in Europe, had been present in Catalonia around the time of the referendum, but Spain has provided no evidence that they played an active role.

    Many Catalan independence leaders have accused the authorities in Madrid of using the specter of Russian interference to tarnish what they described as a grass-roots movement of regular citizens. The referendum was supported by a fragile coalition of three political parties that quickly dissolved over disputes about ideology and strategy. Even as some parties pushed for a negotiated settlement with Madrid, Mr. Puigdemont, a former journalist with a Beatles-like mop of hair, has eschewed compromise.

    Asked about the Russian outreach, the current Catalan government under President Pere Aragones distanced itself from Mr. Puigdemont.

    railed against the “silence of the main European institutions.”

    The European Union declared the Catalan independence referendum illegal. Russia’s position, by contrast, was more equivocal. President Vladimir V. Putin described the Catalan separatist drive as Europe’s comeuppance for supporting independence movements in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.

    “There was a time when they welcomed the collapse of a whole series of governments in Europe, not hiding their happiness about this,” Mr. Putin said. “We talk about double standards all the time. There you go.”

    In March 2019, Mr. Alay traveled to Moscow, just weeks after leaders of the Catalan independence movement went on trial. Three months later, Mr. Alay went again.

    In Russia, according to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met with several active foreign intelligence officers, as well as Oleg V. Syromolotov, the former chief of counterintelligence for the Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, who now oversees counterterrorism as a deputy minister at the Russian foreign ministry.

    Mr. Alay denied meeting Mr. Syromolotov and the officers but acknowledged meeting Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson of a famous K.G.B. spymaster, in order to secure an interview with Mr. Puigdemont on an international affairs program he hosted on Kremlin television. Last year, Mr. Primakov was appointed by Mr. Putin to run a Russian cultural agency that, according to European security officials, often serves as a front for intelligence operations.

    “Good news from Moscow,” Mr. Alay later texted to Mr. Puigdemont, informing him of Mr. Primakov’s appointment. In another exchange, Mr. Dmitrenko told Mr. Alay that Mr. Primakov’s elevation “puts him in a very good position to activate things between us.”

    Mr. Alay also confirmed meeting Andrei Bezrukov, a decorated former officer with Russia’s foreign intelligence service. For more than a decade, Mr. Bezrukov and his wife, Yelena Vavilova, were deep cover operatives living in the United States using the code names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley.

    It was their story of espionage, arrest and eventual return to Russia in a spy swap that served as a basis for the television series “The Americans.” Mr. Alay appears to have become close with the couple. Working with Mr. Dmitrenko, he spent about three months in the fall of 2020 on a Catalan translation of Ms. Vavilova’s autobiographical novel “The Woman Who Can Keep Secrets,” according to his encrypted correspondence.

    Mr. Alay, who is also a college professor and author, said he was invited by Mr. Bezrukov, who now teaches at a Moscow university, to deliver two lectures.

    Mr. Alay was accompanied on each of his trips by Mr. Dmitrenko, 33, a Russian businessman who is married to a Catalan woman. Mr. Dmitrenko did not respond to requests for comment. But Spanish authorities have monitored him and in 2019 rejected a citizenship application from him because of his Russian contacts, according to a Spanish Ministry of Justice decision reviewed by The Times.

    The decision said Mr. Dmitrenko “receives missions” from Russian intelligence and also “does different jobs” for leaders of Russian organized crime.

    A few months after Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow, Catalonia erupted in protests.

    A group calling itself Tsunami Democratic occupied the offices of one of Spain’s largest banks, closed a main highway between France and Spain for two days and orchestrated the takeover of the Barcelona airport, forcing the cancellation of more than a hundred flights.

    The group’s origins have remained unclear, but one of the confidential police files stated that Mr. Alay attended a meeting in Geneva, where he and other independence activists finalized plans for Tsunami Democratic’s unveiling.

    Three days after Tsunami Democratic occupied the Barcelona airport, two Russians flew from Moscow to Barcelona, the Catalan capital, according to flight records obtained by The Times.

    One was Sergei Sumin, whom the intelligence report describes as a colonel in Russia’s Federal Protective Service, which oversees security for Mr. Putin and is not known for activities abroad.

    The other was Artyom Lukoyanov, the adopted son of a top adviser to Mr. Putin, one who was deeply involved in Russia’s efforts to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.

    According to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met the two men in Barcelona for a strategy session to discuss the independence movement, though the report offered no other details.

    Mr. Alay denied any connection to Tsunami Democratic. He confirmed that he had met with Mr. Sumin and Mr. Lukoyanov at the request of Mr. Dmitrenko, but only to “greet them politely.”

    Even as the protests faded, Mr. Puigdemont’s associates remained busy. His lawyer, Mr. Boye, flew to Moscow in February 2020 to meet Vasily Khristoforov, whom Western law enforcement agencies describe as a senior Russian organized crime figure. The goal, according to the report, was to enlist Mr. Khristoforov to help set up a secret funding channel for the independence movement.

    In an interview, Mr. Boye acknowledged meeting in Moscow with Mr. Khristoforov, who is wanted in several countries including Spain on suspicion of financial crimes, but said they only discussed matters relating to Mr. Khristoforov’s legal cases.

    By late 2020, Mr. Alay’s texts reveal an eagerness to keep his Russian contacts happy. In exchanges with Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Boye, he said they should avoid any public statements that might anger Moscow, especially about the democracy protests that Russia was helping to disperse violently in Belarus.

    Mr. Puigdemont did not always heed the advice, appearing in Brussels with the Belarusian opposition and tweeting his support for the protesters, prompting Mr. Boye to text Mr. Alay that “we will have to tell the Russians that this was just to mislead.”

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    Live Updates: Security Threats at Kabul Airport Prompt Multiple Warnings

    U.S. Embassy warned Americans to stay away from the Kabul airport and told anyone outside the perimeter to “leave immediately,” citing unnamed security threats.

    The British and Australian governments issued similar warnings, with Australian officials describing “an ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack.”

    The warnings came as the last of the estimated 1,500 Americans and countless other foreigners still in Afghanistan try to make it to the airport to leave before the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31. Thousands of Afghan nationals are camped outside the perimeter of the airport in desperate attempts to escape on the last flights out, some with documents allowing them to leave.

    A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about confidential assessments, confirmed that the United States was tracking a “specific” and “credible” threat at the airport from the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which has carried out dozens of attacks in recent years, many targeting ethnic minorities and other civilians.

    The U.S. Embassy in Kabul cited three areas of particular concern in its advisory.

    “U.S. citizens who are at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately,” the statement said, without further detail.Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, said at a news conference Thursday that the Taliban will allow Australian citizens and visa holders to leave safely but added, “Our travel advice remains: You should not come to Hamid Karzai airport because it is not safe to do so, and if you are in Kabul, you should shelter in place, move to a safe location and await further advice.”

    The U.S. government has been warning about potential security threats at the airport, and access to the airport has been adjusted accordingly, with some gates temporarily closed.

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    Blinken Provides Update on U.S. Rescue Mission in Afghanistan

    Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken gave details on the number of U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals rescued so far, as well as the number of Americans still in Afghanistan who want to leave.

    Since Aug. 14, more than 82,300 people have been safely flown out of Kabul. In the 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday, approximately 19,000 people were evacuated on 90 U.S. military and coalition flights. Our first priority is the evacuation of American citizens. Since Aug. 14, we have evacuated at least 4,500 U.S. citizens, and likely more. More than 500 of those Americans were evacuated in just the last day alone. Now, many of you have asked how many U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan who want to leave the country. Based on our analysis, starting on Aug. 14, when our evacuation operations began, there was then a population of as many as 6,000 American citizens in Afghanistan who wanted to leave. Over the last 10 days, roughly 4,500 of these Americans have been safely evacuated, along with immediate family members. Over the past 24 hours, we’ve been in direct contact with approximately 500 additional Americans and provided specific instructions on how to get to the airport safely. From my perspective, from the president’s perspective, this effort does not end on Aug. 31. It will continue for as long as it takes to help get people out of Afghanistan who wish to leave.

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    Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken gave details on the number of U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals rescued so far, as well as the number of Americans still in Afghanistan who want to leave.CreditCredit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

    WASHINGTON — About 1,500 American citizens remain in Afghanistan, and about a third of them are in contact with the U.S. government and hope to leave in the coming days, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Wednesday.

    Some of the remaining 1,000 may not want to leave, Mr. Blinken said, describing an ever-changing estimate that the Biden administration has tried to pin down as American troops wind down an evacuation effort that has overwhelmed the airport in Kabul, the capital.

    That number does not include legal permanent American residents or green card holders, he said.

    Mr. Blinken said more than 4,500 U.S. citizens have so far been flown out of Afghanistan since Aug. 14, as the Taliban bore down on Kabul. He said the State Department has sent more than 20,000 emails and made 45,000 phone calls to identify and locate Americans in Afghanistan ahead of an Aug. 31 withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country after 20 years of war.

    But Mr. Blinken sought to assure that any Americans or Afghans who have worked with the U.S. mission and want to leave after that date should be free to do so. “That effort will continue every day,” he said.

    U.S. and allied planes flew an additional 19,200 people out of Kabul in the past 24 hours, officials said on Wednesday, as the Biden administration made substantial inroads into evacuating American citizens and Afghans who worked for the United States over the last 20 years.

    More than 10,000 people were still inside the international airport in Kabul awaiting flights out of the country on Wednesday, and Afghans with proper credentials continued to be cleared into the airfield, Pentagon officials said.

    With President Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of American troops rapidly approaching, tens of thousands of Afghans who qualify for special immigration visas are also waiting to be evacuated.

    As of 3 a.m. in Washington, the United States had evacuated about 82,300 people from Kabul’s international airport since the government fell to Taliban forces.

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    ‘We Are Working as Fast as We Can’: U.S. Rushes Evacuations

    A Pentagon spokesman said U.S. and allied forces would work “all the way to the end” to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul, but that the priority would shift to flying out American troops and equipment in the mission’s final days.

    Ninety flights total yesterday that left the Kabul airport, that is accounted for 19,000 evacuees now safely out of Afghanistan within a 24-hour period. Since the U.S. and coalition forces began the evacuation, to date, approximately 88,000 have safely departed from Afghanistan. We will continue to evacuate needed populations all the way to the end. If if, if we have to, and we need to, if you’re an evacuee, that we can get out, we’re going to continue to get you out right up until the end. But in those last couple of days, we’re going to try to preserve as much capability as we can at the airport, as you might imagine. So in those last couple of days, we will begin to prioritize military capabilities and military resources to move out. That doesn’t mean that if you’re an evacuee and you need to get out, that we’re not going to try to get you out, but that we will have to reserve some capacity in those last couple of days to prioritize the military footprint leaving. We know there are a lot of desperate people who want to leave, and that’s why we are working as fast as we can. And you saw the numbers that we continue to be able to get out. We’re working as fast as we can to get out American citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and vulnerable Afghans.

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    A Pentagon spokesman said U.S. and allied forces would work “all the way to the end” to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul, but that the priority would shift to flying out American troops and equipment in the mission’s final days.CreditCredit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

    John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that American officers in Kabul, including the top commander, Rear Adm. Peter G. Vaseley, were talking daily with Taliban counterparts to ensure safe passage of Americans and Afghan allies with proper credentials.

    Experts predict that hundreds of thousands of Afghans will be targeted by the Taliban if they stay, including Afghan security forces, government officials, women’s rights advocates and other defenders of democracy. Those Afghans are desperately hoping to join the U.S. military’s airlift before it begins to wind down, potentially as soon as this weekend.

    For the third time in a week, American military helicopters rescued Americans inside Kabul. On Tuesday, about 20 American citizens who were flown onto the airfield from a location inside the city, Maj. Gen. William Taylor told reporters. A similar flight rescued 169 Americans from a Kabul hotel meeting place last week.

    Though Mr. Biden has vowed to stick to the Aug. 31 exit plan, as the Taliban have demanded, he also has instructed Mr. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin to draw up plans to push back the date if necessary.

    The Taliban have warned of potential reprisals should the United States renege on its promise to withdraw its forces by the deadline, and Mr. Biden on Tuesday noted the danger to American troops should they remain much longer.

    Beyond the Taliban, extremists affiliated with the Islamic State are also believed to pose a threat to the evacuation effort that has drawn crowds of people to Kabul’s airport gates, clamoring to be allowed on one of the flights that are departing every 45 minutes.

    “I’m determined to ensure that we complete our mission,” Mr. Biden said at the White House on Tuesday. “I’m also mindful of the increasing risks that I’ve been briefed on and the need to factor those risks in. There are real and significant challenges that we also have to take into consideration.”

    But the dwindling hours are weighing heavily on the minds of people seeking to flee Afghanistan and members of Congress who want the United States to retain a presence there until Americans and high-risk Afghans can get out.

    The Pentagon spokesman, Mr. Kirby, said that the military would put high priority on flying out American troops and equipment in the mission’s final days. “There will be a transition more toward getting military assets out as we get closer to the end, but again, we’re going to continue to work the evacuation mission right up until the last day,” he said.

    Zabihullah Mujahid, a senior Taliban official, after a briefing in the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kabul on Tuesday.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    KABUL, Afghanistan — In his first sit-down interview with a Western media outlet since the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan, one of the group’s leaders on Wednesday offered a portrait of a group intent on rebuilding a country shattered by decades of war.

    “We want to build the future, and forget what happened in the past,” the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in an interview with The New York Times. He rejected widespread fears that the Taliban are already exacting vengeance on those who opposed them and want to reimpose the harsh controls on women that made them notorious when they ruled the country 20 years ago.

    The interview came just a day after Mr. Mujahid warned the women of Afghanistan that it might be safest for them to remain home until more rank-and-file Taliban fighters have been trained in how not to mistreat them.

    It was a notable acknowledgment of the many changes to Afghan society that greeted the Taliban when they re-entered a city they had not controlled for two decades.

    Many of those changes involve women. Not only have they been free to leave home unaccompanied — dressed as they see fit — they have also returned to school and jobs, and their images can be seen on everything from billboards to TV screens.

    On Wednesday, Mr. Mujahid suggested that longer-term, women would be free to resume their daily routines.

    Concerns that the Taliban would once again force them to stay in their homes or cover their faces are baseless, he said. He added that the requirement they be accompanied by a male guardian, known as a mahram, was misunderstood. It applies only to journeys of three days or longer, he said.

    “If they go to school, the office, university, or the hospital, they don’t need a mahram,” said Mr. Mujahid, who also serves as the Taliban’s chief spokesman.

    He also offered assurances to Afghans trying to leave the country, saying — contrary to news reports based on his news conference on Tuesday, including in The Times — that those with valid travel documents would not be prevented from entering the airport.

    “We said that people who don’t have proper documents aren’t allowed to go,” Mr. Mujahid said. “They need passports and visas for the countries they’re going to, and then they can leave by air. If their documents are valid, then we’re not going to ask what they were doing before.”

    He also denied allegations that the Taliban have been searching for former interpreters and others who worked for the American military, and claimed that they would be safe in their own country. And he expressed frustration at the Western evacuation efforts.

    “They shouldn’t interfere in our country and take out our human resources: doctors, professors and other people we need here,” Mr. Mujahid said. “In America, they might become dishwashers or cooks. It’s inhuman.”

    For the past decade, Mr. Mujahid had been a key link between the militants and the news media, but remained faceless. On Wednesday, he granted the interview at the Ministry of Information and Culture as Taliban leaders and other Afghan power brokers were engaging in protracted discussions about the future shape of the country.

    Mr. Mujahid is seen as likely to be the future minister of information and culture. Fluent in both Pashto and Dari, the country’s principal languages, Mr. Mujahid, 43, described himself as a native of Paktia Province and a graduate in Islamic jurisprudence from the well-known Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa in Pakistan.

    Despite the tense situation at the airport on Wednesday, where thousands of people were still crowded around most entrance gates, Mr. Mujahid expressed hope that the Taliban would build good relations with the international community, pointing out areas of cooperation around counterterrorism, opium eradication and the reduction of refugees to the West.

    Although he sought to convey a much more tolerant image of the Taliban, Mr. Mujahid did confirm one report: Music will not be allowed in public.

    “Music is forbidden in Islam,” he said, “but we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”

    Matthieu Aikins and

    Selling bread on a street in Kabul on Saturday.
    Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

    The Americans are all but gone, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban now rule the streets of Kabul. Overnight, millions of Kabul residents have been left to navigate an uncertain transition after 20 years of U.S.-backed rule.

    Government services are largely unavailable. Residents are struggling to lead their daily lives in an ecconomy that, propped up for the past generation by American aid, is now in free fall. Banks are closed, cash is growing scarce, and food prices are rising.

    Yet relative calm has reigned over Kabul, the capital, in sharp contrast to the chaos at its airport. Many residents are hiding in their homes or venturing out only cautiously to see what life might be like under their new rulers.

    Even residents who said they feared the Taliban were struck by the relative order and quiet, but for some the calm has been ominous.

    A resident named Mohib said that streets were deserted in his section of the city, with people hunkering down in their homes, “scared and terrorized.”

    “People feel the Taliban may come any moment to take away everything from them,” he said.

    Outside the international airport in Kabul on Wednesday. The biggest immediate threat to the Americans and the Taliban as the United States escalates its evacuation is ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    WASHINGTON — The United States has been battling the Taliban and their militant partners in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, for 20 years.

    But the biggest immediate threat to both the Americans and the Taliban as the United States escalates its evacuation at the Kabul airport before an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline is a common rival that is lesser known: Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.

    Created six years ago by disaffected Pakistani Taliban, ISIS-K has carried out dozens of attacks in Afghanistan this year. American military and intelligence analysts say threats from the group include a bomb-laden truck, suicide bombers infiltrating the crowd outside Hamid Karzai International Airport and mortar strikes against the airfield.

    These threats, coupled with new demands by the Taliban for the United States to leave by Aug. 31, probably influenced President Biden’s decision on Tuesday to stick to that deadline. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Mr. Biden said.

    The threats lay bare a complicated dynamic between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, and their bitter rival, ISIS-K, in what analysts say portends a bloody struggle involving thousands of foreign fighters on both sides.

    A United Nations report in June concluded that 8,000 to 10,000 fighters from Central Asia, the North Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan and the Xinjiang region in western China have poured into Afghanistan in recent months. Most are associated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, the report said, but others are allied with ISIS-K.

    “Afghanistan has now become the Las Vegas of the terrorists, of the radicals and of the extremists,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a former Afghan security official. “People all over the world, radicals and extremists, are chanting, celebrating the Taliban victory. This is paving the way for other extremists to come to Afghanistan.”

    Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Paris.

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    Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would continue to support Afghans remaining in the country after the U.S. withdraws troops and ends its evacuation mission.CreditCredit…Tobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    Germany will maintain support for Afghans who remain in their country after the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal and evacuation mission passes in six days, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday. She also called for talks with the Taliban to preserve progress made in Afghanistan in the last two decades.

    Speaking to a session of Parliament convened to discuss the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, the chancellor defended Germany’s decision to join the international intervention there in 2001.

    “Our goal must be to preserve as much as possible what we have achieved in terms of changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years,” Ms. Merkel told lawmakers. “This is something the international community must talk about with the Taliban.”

    She cited changes such as improved access to basic necessities, with 70 percent of Afghans now having access to clean drinking water and 90 percent having access to electricity, in addition to better health care for women.

    “But what is clear is that the Taliban are reality in Afghanistan and many people are afraid,” Ms. Merkel said. “This new reality is bitter, but we must come to terms with it.”

    Germany pulled its last contingent of soldiers, about 570 troops, out of Afghanistan in June, but several hundred Germans were still engaged in development work funded by Berlin, and the German government believed they would be able to remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces.

    Ms. Merkel defended her government’s decision to leave development workers on the ground, saying that they had hoped to continue to provide essential support for Afghans after the troop withdrawal, and that an earlier retreat could have appeared as if they were abandoning people.

    “At that time there were very good reasons to stand beside the people in Afghanistan after the troops were gone,” Ms. Merkel said.

    But the opposition leaders criticized her government for not developing a plan to bring people to safety in the spring, when other European countries were evacuating citizens and Afghan support staff.

    “The situation in Afghanistan is a catastrophe, but it did not come out of nowhere,” said Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democratic Party, which together with the Green Party petitioned Parliament in June to begin evacuations of German staff and Afghans who could be in danger.

    Ms. Merkel did not apologize, instead calling for a deeper examination of where the West went wrong in Afghanistan and what lessons could be learned. That will be the work of the next government, as she is stepping down after the German elections on Sept. 26.

    “Many things in history take a long time. That is why we must not and will not forget Afghanistan,” said Ms. Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany.

    “Even if it doesn’t look like it in this bitter hour,” she said, “I remain convinced that no force or ideology can resist the drive for justice and peace.”

    A C-17 military transport plane taking off from the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    When President Biden briefly referred to the Berlin airlift — the operation 73 years ago to feed a city whose access had been choked off by the Soviet Union — in describing the United States’ evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, he was revealing the inspiration for a broader plan to redeem America’s messy exit.

    After 10 days of missed signals, desperate crowds and violence around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Mr. Biden and his team are eager to shift the narrative about the chaotic end of America’s longest war.

    Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, said on Monday that the scores of rescue flights the United States was initiating each day were likely to be regarded as “one of the largest airlifts in history.”

    “There is no other country in the world who could pull something like this off — bar none,” he said.

    As of Tuesday evening, 12,000 people had been evacuated from Kabul during the previous 12 hours, Biden said. That brought the total number evacuated since the end of July to 75,900 people, the president said.

    The comparison to the rescue operation in Berlin is not a bad one. Berlin had been divided since the end of World War II, and tensions were growing. The United States and Britain took to the sky to carry in material by plane.

    The two countries managed to get just shy of 300,000 flights into Berlin over 11 months, from June 24, 1948, to May 11, 1949, and the State Department’s record notes that “at the height of the campaign, one plane landed every 45 seconds at Tempelhof Airport,” which until recently was Berlin’s main air hub.

    People protest the situation in Afghanistan in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva last week.
    Credit…Martial Trezzini/KEYSTONE, via Associated Press

    The United Nations leadership faced growing anger from staff unions Wednesday over what some called its failure to protect Afghan co-workers and their families, who remain stuck in Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban even as the majority of the organization’s non-Afghan staff have been relocated to other countries.

    Many of the Afghan employees, their foreign colleagues say, are in hiding or are reluctant to keep working, fearful of reprisals by triumphant Taliban militants who may perceive them as apostates, traitors and agents of foreign interference.

    That fear has persisted even though the Taliban’s hierarchy has indicated that the U.N. should be permitted to work in the country unimpeded during and after the forces of the United States and NATO withdraw, a pullout that is officially scheduled for completion in less than a week.

    An internal U.N. document reported by Reuters on Wednesday said Taliban operatives had detained and beaten some Afghan employees of the United Nations. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres, did not confirm or deny the report but said it was “critical is that the authorities in charge in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan realize that they have the responsibility to protect U.N. premises and for the safety of U.N. staff.”

    Mr. Guterres has repeatedly said the U.N. fully supports the Afghan staff, who are said to number between 3,000 and 3,400, and that he is doing everything in his power to ensure their safety. Mr. Dujarric said about 10 percent of those Afghan workers are women, who are especially at risk of facing Taliban repression.

    The secretary general reiterated his assurances during a private virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday with staff members, said Mr. Dujarric, who told reporters that Mr. Guterres “understands the staff’s deep anxiety about what the future holds.”

    But rank-and-file staff members of the United Nations have grown increasingly skeptical of Mr. Guterres’s pronouncements. A resolution passed on Tuesday by the U.N. staff union in New York urged Mr. Guterres to take steps that would enable Afghan staff members to avoid “unacceptable residual risks by using evacuation from Afghanistan as soon as possible.”

    U.N. officials have said they are powerless to issue visas to Afghan personnel without cooperation from other countries willing to host them. U.N. officials also have said the organization remains committed to providing services in Afghanistan, where roughly half the population needs humanitarian aid. Such services, including food and health care, are impossible to conduct without local staff.

    The town hall was held a few days after a second batch of non-Afghan U.N. staff had been airlifted from Kabul. Many of the roughly 350 non-Afghan U.N. personnel who had been in the country, including Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, are now working remotely from Almaty, Kazakhstan.

    The unequal treatment of non-Afghan and Afghan personnel working for the U.N. has become an increasingly bitter sore point between management and staff at the global organization. An online petition started this past weekend by staff union members calling on Mr. Guterres to do more to help Afghan employees and their families had, as of Wednesday, garnered nearly 6,000 signatures.

    Correction: 

    An earlier version of this item misidentified the U.N. staff union organization that passed a resolution urging the U.N. secretary general to help Afghan employees evacuate Afghanistan. It was the U.N. staff union in New York, not the coordinating committee of the association of staff unions.

    A defaced beauty shop window display in Kabul on Sunday.
    Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

    When the Taliban were last in power, Afghan women were generally not allowed to leave their homes except under certain narrowly defined conditions. Those who did risked being beaten, tortured or executed.

    In the days since the Taliban swept back into control, their leaders have insisted that this time will be different. Women, they say, will be allowed to work. Girls will be free to attend school. At least within the confines of their interpretation of Islam.

    But early signs have not been promising, and that pattern continued on Tuesday with a statement from a Taliban spokesman that women should stay home, at least for now. Why? Because some of the militants have not yet been trained not to hurt them, he said.

    The spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, called it a “temporary” policy intended to protect women until the Taliban could ensure their safety.

    “We are worried our forces who are new and have not been yet trained very well may mistreat women,” Mr. Mujahid said. “We don’t want our forces, God forbid, to harm or harass women.”

    Mr. Mujahid said that women should stay home “until we have a new procedure,” and that “their salaries will paid in their homes.”

    His statement echoed comments from Ahmadullah Waseq, the deputy of the Taliban’s cultural affairs committee, who told The New York Times this week that the Taliban had “no problem with working women,” as long as they wore hijabs.

    But, he said: “For now, we are asking them to stay home until the situation gets normal. Now it is a military situation.”

    During the first years of Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, women were forbidden to work outside the home or even to leave the house without a male guardian. They could not attend school, and faced public flogging if they were found to have violated morality rules, like one requiring that they be fully covered.

    The claim that restrictions on women’s lives are a temporary necessity is not new to Afghan women. The Taliban made similar claims the last time they controlled Afghanistan, said Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.

    “The explanation was that the security was not good, and they were waiting for security to be better, and then women would be able to have more freedom,” she said. “But of course in those years they were in power, that moment never arrived — and I can promise you Afghan women hearing this today are thinking it will never arrive this time either.”

    Brian Castner, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International who was in Afghanistan until last week, said that if the Taliban intended to treat women better, they would need to retrain their forces. “You can’t have a movement like the Taliban that has operated a certain way for 25 years and then just because you take over a government, all of the fighters and everyone in your organization just does something differently,” he said.

    But, Mr. Castner said, there is no indication that the Taliban intend to fulfill that or any other promises of moderation. Amnesty International has received reports of fighters going door to door with lists of names, despite their leaders’ public pledges not to retaliate against Afghans who worked with the previous government.

    “The rhetoric and the reality are not matching at all, and I think that the rhetoric is more than just disingenuous,” Mr. Castner said. “If a random Taliban fighter commits a human rights abuse or violation, that’s just kind of random violence, that’s one thing. But if there’s a systematic going to people’s homes and looking for people, that’s not a random fighter that’s untrained — that’s a system working. The rhetoric is a cover for what’s really happening.”

    In Kabul on Wednesday, women in parts of the city with minimal Taliban presence were going out “with normal clothes, as it was before the Taliban,” said a resident named Shabaka. But in central areas with many Taliban fighters, few women ventured out, and those who did wore burqas, said Sayed, a civil servant.

    Ms. Barr, of Human Rights Watch, said that in the week since the Taliban said the new government would preserve women’s rights “within the bounds of Islamic law,” the Afghan women she has spoken to offered the same skeptical assessment: “They’re trying to look normal and legitimate, and this will last as long as the international community and the international press are still there. And then we’ll see what they’re really like again.”

    It might not take long, Ms. Barr suggested.

    “This announcement just highlights to me that they don’t feel like they need to wait,” she said.

    The New York Times’s Afghanistan staff and their families arriving at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City on Wednesday.
    Credit…Azam Ahmed/The New York Times

    A group of Afghans who worked for The New York Times, along with their families, touched down safely early Wednesday — not in New York or Washington, but at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City.

    Mexican officials, unlike their counterparts in the United States, were able to cut through the red tape of their immigration system to quickly provide documents that, in turn, allowed the Afghans to fly from Kabul’s embattled airport to Qatar.

    The documents promised that the Afghans would receive temporary humanitarian protection in Mexico while they explored further options in the United States or elsewhere.

    “We are right now committed to a foreign policy promoting free expression, liberties and feminist values,” Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said in a telephone interview.

    He cited a national tradition of welcoming people including the 19th-century Cuban independence leader José Martí, German Jews and South Americans fleeing coups, and he said that Mexico had opened its doors to the Afghan journalists “in order to protect them and to be consistent with this policy.”

    But the path of the Afghan journalists and their families to Mexico was as arbitrary, personal and tenuous as anything else in the frantic and scattershot evacuation of Kabul.

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    A group of former mujahedeen fighters and Afghan Army commandos rallied 70 miles north of Kabul in the Panjshir Valley, the last area of Afghanistan not under Taliban control.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    Just days after the Taliban swept into Kabul and toppled Afghanistan’s government, a group of former mujahedeen fighters and Afghan commandos said they had begun a war of resistance in the last area of the country that is not under Taliban control: a narrow valley with a history of repelling invaders.

    The man leading them is Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of the storied mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. And their struggle faces long odds: The resistance fighters are surrounded by the Taliban, have supplies that will soon start dwindling and have no visible outside support.

    For now the resistance has merely two assets: the Panjshir Valley, 70 miles north of Kabul, which has a history of repelling invaders, and the legendary Massoud name.

    Spokesmen for Ahmad Massoud insist that he has attracted thousands of soldiers to the valley, including remnants of the Afghan Army’s special forces and some of his father’s experienced guerrilla commanders, as well as activists and others who reject the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.

    The spokesmen, some of whom were with him in the Panjshir Valley and some who were outside the country drumming up support, said that Mr. Massoud has stocks of weapons and matériel, including American helicopters, but needs more.

    ‘‘We’re waiting for some opportunity, some support,” said Hamid Saifi, a former colonel in the Afghan National Army, and now a commander in Mr. Massoud’s resistance, who was reached in the Panjshir Valley by telephone on Sunday. “Maybe some countries will be ready for this great work. So far, all countries we talked to are quiet. America, Europe, China, Russia, all of them are quiet.’’

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    Pelosi: ‘Real Concern’ Over Lawmakers’ Kabul Trip

    Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged lawmakers not to travel to Afghanistan against government advisement, after Representatives Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer, both veterans, secretly flew to Kabul unauthorized to witness evacuations.

    There’s a real concern about members being in the region. And so, with the, shall we say, shall we say, knowledge of the Secretary of Defense as to what the risk would be to these members, the resources necessary to facilitate their visit and to protect them was an opportunity cost of what we needed to do to be evacuating as many people as possible. Point is, is that we don’t want anybody to think that this was a good idea and that they should try to follow suit. Again, I haven’t — I’ve been busy — it’s an important thing we want to make sure they were safe for themselves, but also for what consequences could flow and ramification if something happened to them while they were there. So they have to make their own case as to why they went and this or that. But it is, it was not, in my view, a good idea.

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    Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged lawmakers not to travel to Afghanistan against government advisement, after Representatives Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer, both veterans, secretly flew to Kabul unauthorized to witness evacuations.CreditCredit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

    Two members of Congress secretly flew to Kabul without authorization on Tuesday to witness the frenzied evacuation of Americans and Afghans, infuriating Biden administration officials and prompting Speaker Nancy Pelosi to urge other lawmakers not to follow their example.

    The two members — Representatives Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan, both veterans — said in a statement that the purpose of their trip was “to provide oversight on the executive branch.” Both lawmakers have blistered the Biden administration in recent weeks, accusing top officials of dragging their feet on evacuating American citizens and Afghan allies.

    “There is no place in the world right now where oversight matters more,” they said.

    Credit…Erin Schaff for The New York Times
    Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

    But administration officials were furious that Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer had entered Afghanistan on an unauthorized, undisclosed trip, arguing that efforts to tend to the lawmakers had drained resources badly needed to help evacuate those already in the country.

    The trip was reported earlier by The Associated Press.

    Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer said that they had left Afghanistan “on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence,” and that they had taken other steps to “minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground.” They were in Kabul for less than 24 hours.

    Still, Ms. Pelosi pressed other lawmakers not to do the same.

    “Member travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding countries would unnecessarily divert needed resources from the priority mission of safely and expeditiously evacuating Americans and Afghans at risk from Afghanistan,” Ms. Pelosi wrote in a letter. She did not refer to Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer by name.

    In their statement on Tuesday night, the congressmen sharpened their criticism of the administration’s handling of the evacuation, saying that “Washington should be ashamed of the position we put our service members in” and that the situation they had witnessed on the ground was more dire than they had expected.

    “After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late,” they wrote, “that no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time.”

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    Afghanistan Live Updates: Biden Says U.S. Forces Will Stay in Kabul to Get All Americans Out

    Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, a group that provides intelligence information to agencies of the global organization. It was shared internally at the United Nations and seen by The New York Times.

    Members of the Afghan military and the police, as well as those who worked for investigative units of the toppled government, were particularly at risk, the document said.

    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 before the insurgents came to the official’s apartment.

    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.”

    The Taliban have repeatedly issued assurances that they will not use their victory to wreak revenge on those who opposed them. The report adds to the growing doubts about that pledge, and suggests that the Taliban may indeed engage in reprisal killings, as they did when they took over in Afghanistan more than 20 years ago.

    On Wednesday, a public display of dissent in the northeastern city of Jalalabad was met by force. Taliban soldiers fired into the crowd and beat protesters and journalists.

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    Gunfire in the Streets: Protests Met by Force in Afghanistan

    The Taliban faced off against protestors in the northeastern city of Jalalabad. Taliban soldiers fired shots into the crowd and beat protesters and journalists.

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    The Taliban faced off against protestors in the northeastern city of Jalalabad. Taliban soldiers fired shots into the crowd and beat protesters and journalists.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    The Taliban faced the first street protests on Wednesday against their takeover of Afghanistan, with demonstrations in at least two cities, even as they moved to form a new government.

    A public display of dissent in the northeastern city of Jalalabad was met by force. Taliban soldiers fired into the crowd and beat protesters and journalists.

    The Taliban had taken control of the city, a commercial hub east of Kabul near the main border crossing with Pakistan, four days earlier without much of a fight after a deal was negotiated with local leaders. This week, the Taliban have been out in large numbers, patrolling the city in pickup trucks seized from the now defunct police force.

    Despite the risks, hundreds of protesters marched through the main shopping street, whistling, shouting and bearing large flags of the Afghan Republic. Taliban fighters fired in the air to break up the crowd, but the protesters did not disperse, video aired by local news media outlets showed.

    When that failed, the fighters resorted to violence. At least two people were killed and a dozen injured, according to Al Jazeera.

    For the new Taliban government, the jarring images of violence at the protest — as well as images of chaos and people being beaten while trying to approach Kabul’s airport in an attempt to flee the country — have undermined their efforts to present themselves as responsible stewards of the government.

    In Khost, in the southeastern part of the country, there were also demonstrations, with dramatic photos and video showing hundreds of people taking to the streets.

    The outpouring of public anger came as the Taliban prepared to offer details on the shape of their government, naming ministers and filling key positions.

    The younger brother of a top Taliban leader met in Kabul on Wednesday with former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the Afghan delegation to the recent peace talks in Qatar. He was accompanied by the speaker of Afghanistan’s upper house of Parliament.

    The meeting was further evidence of the group’s determination to gain international acceptance.

    It followed a news conference on Tuesday in which the Taliban offered blanket amnesty, vowing no reprisals against former enemies.

    “We don’t want Afghanistan to be a battlefield anymore,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s longtime chief spokesman, said. “From today onward, war is over.”

    While many were skeptical of those assurances, in Kabul the rhythms of daily life started to return — but they were in many ways circumscribed.

    There were noticeably fewer women on the streets. Some of those who ventured out did not cover up in the traditional burqa, the full-length shroud that covers the face that was required the last time the Taliban ruled. At homes and businesses, a knock on the door could stir fear.

    It remains to be seen whether the pragmatic needs of a nation of 38 million will continue to temper the ideological fanaticism that defined the group’s rule from 1996 to 2001. But the country the Taliban now control is vastly changed from two decades ago.

    The progress of women — women in critical roles in civil society and millions of girls in school — is the most visible example. But years of Western investment in the country also helped rebuild a nation that was in a state of ruin when the Taliban first emerged.

    The protests offered early signs that many Afghans will not simply accept Taliban rule.

    The Afghan government’s failure to meet people’s basic needs helped fuel support for the Taliban. That allowed them to sweep across the country swiftly — often not by military force, but by negotiation with frustrated local leaders.

    On Wednesday, at a riverside market in Kabul, Jawed was selling apples. Born the year the Taliban were ousted from power, he was not old enough to remember their brutal reign.

    His concern this week was getting supplies of fruit from Pakistan. That was now easier, he said.

    “The roads are clear now — they are quiet,” said Jawed, who goes by one name. For now, the Taliban meant more order in the traffic, and wholesale prices had dropped. But business was not better.

    “The people are afraid right now — they’re not buying,” he said. “But at least it is better than yesterday. Things will slowly improve. The mullahs have arrived.”

    The arrival of the Taliban mullahs — a reference to group’s religious leaders — also set off widespread fear.

    Tens of thousands are still trying to escape. People lined up early at the banks, worried that there wouldn’t be money to feed their families. And the deployment of soldiers at checkpoints across Kabul made it clear that Taliban have a monopoly on the use of force and would decide how and when to use it.

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    Taliban Fire Gunshots Outside Kabul Airport

    Gunshots rang out as thousands of Afghans crowded outside Kabul’s international airport attempting to flee the country. The Taliban controlled the chaotic streets surrounding the airport, while the U.S. military established control inside.

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    Gunshots rang out as thousands of Afghans crowded outside Kabul’s international airport attempting to flee the country. The Taliban controlled the chaotic streets surrounding the airport, while the U.S. military established control inside.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    Chaos erupted outside Kabul’s international airport on Wednesday as thousands of people tried to make their way there to flee Afghanistan. The sound of heavy gunfire echoed through the streets leading to the facility.

    There were conflicting reports about what exactly was happening on the streets outside the airport, which the Taliban now control.

    A NATO security official at the airport told Reuters that 17 people had been injured in a stampede at one gate to the airport.

    People were still camping out near the airport’s gates. Whole families sat under rows of pine trees lining the main airport road, while others, carrying sparse belongings, were still trying to gain entrance, to little avail. The Taliban still had their men stationed at the entrances. There were volleys of rifle fire, pushing, pulling and beating with wooden sticks, Kalashnikovs and pieces of cut hoses.

    At one gate, Taliban members had positioned themselves on concrete road dividers overlooking the crowd. Their commander, Kalashnikov slung around the shoulder and megaphone in hand, told the people: “This gate is closed. Only foreigners and people with documents allowed.”

    Although the U.S. military has established control inside the airport and military flights have resumed, the situation outside on Wednesday was volatile.

    The Taliban have sought to present a kinder and gentler image of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to the world, but scenes near the airport offered a bloody counterpoint. Taliban members at times beat people with rifle butts and clubs to force back the crowd trying to get in.

    Images taken on Tuesday by Marcus Yam, a photographer for the Los Angeles Times, were graphic: a man cradling a child with a bloodied forehead. A woman who appeared to be unconscious lying in the road a few feet away, blood streaming down her cheek.

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    Prominent Afghans in the Panjshir Valley, which the Taliban do not control, do not recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s rightful leaders and have begun challenging their authority.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    A group of Afghan leaders are trying to rally a force to resist the Taliban from the same strategic valley that two decades ago held out against the militants — and provided American spies and special forces operators a launchpad for the invasion that drove the Taliban from power in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

    Yet the parallels with that earlier fight in a pocket north of Kabul known as the Panjshir Valley, however intriguing, are limited, and even Afghans sympathetic to the effort expressed deep doubts about its prospects.

    Unlike 20 years ago, the resistance leaders do not control the territory they would need to open a supply line through Afghanistan’s northern borders, nor do they appear to have any significant international support.

    How many men and how well supplied they are material is also an open question. Former Afghan officials put the number of fighters holed up in Panjshir between 2,000 and 2,500, and they are said to have little beyond assault weapons.

    And the leaders, while well-established Afghan political and military figures, lack the charisma and military prowess of the man who led the old Northern Alliance that resisted the Taliban in the 1990s, Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was killed by assassins from Al Qaeda two days before the Sept. 11 attacks, and is now a mythic figure among the ethnic Tajiks who populate northern Afghanistan, and who made up the bulk of those who first fought Taliban rule.

    For now, though, the leaders of the movement insist that their goal is to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban on behalf of the now-defunct Afghan government, said Amrullah Saleh, one of the men organizing the resistance.

    Mr. Saleh was Afghanistan’s first vice president until Sunday, when President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul ahead of the Taliban’s advance into the city, and he is now claiming to be the “caretaker president” under Afghanistan’s U.S.-brokered 2004 Constitution.

    “We have lost territory but not legitimacy,” he said in an interview conducted over text message. “I, as caretaker president, upholder of the Constitution, don’t see the Taliban emirate either as legitimate or national.”

    Mr. Saleh has been joined in Panjshir by Ahmad Massoud, the son of the assassinated resistance leader, and Gen. Yasin Zia, a former Afghan army chief of staff and deputy defense minister.

    Afghanistan will have “peace and stability,” said Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, an Afghan ambassador to Tajikistan aligned with the holdouts in the Panjshir Valley, “if the Taliban who are in Doha and Pakistan agree to a settlement accepting what the world is asking for.”

    Mr. Saleh said the group believed “in a genuine peace process, which doesn’t exist at the moment.”

    “Should the Taliban be ready for meaningful discussions, we will welcome it,” he said. “If they insist on military conquest, than they better read Afghan history.”

    The Panjshir Valley features prominently in that history.

    The deep and narrow gorge at the valley’s mouth was tailor-made for obstruction and ambush, and the valley held out not only against the Taliban in the 1990s but also the Soviets in the 1980s. The first Americans to enter Afghanistan in September 2001, a small Central Intelligence Agency team, went to Panjshir to secure the Northern Alliance as allies.

    Mr. Saleh said he survived “two attacks and one ambush” by Taliban fighters as he drove to Panjshir on Sunday.

    Mr. Saleh, who also previously ran Afghanistan’s spy service, the National Directorate of Security, was cagey about what size force was in Panjshir, saying that he did not want “compromise our military secrets or operational security.”

    “But we are on the top of the situation and organizing things,” he said, adding that his team was in touch with other Afghan leaders who fought the Taliban 20 years ago, though he would not name them.

    Still, it was far from clear what outside help might arrive or whether Mr. Saleh’s claim to continuity of government under the Afghan Constitution would gain traction.

    At least one place has bought in: the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan. In the carpeted meeting rooms of the building, off a dusty, taxi-clogged street in Dushanbe, Mr. Ghani’s photographs have come down, and Mr. Saleh’s have gone up.

    Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

    Evacuees from Kabul are tested for Covid-19 upon their arrival at Tashkent Airport in Uzbekistan on Tuesday.
    Credit…Marc Tessensohn/Bundeswehr, via Getty Images

    World Health Organization officials warned on Wednesday that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was impeding efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic and other dire health crises.

    Gauging the spread of the coronavirus in Afghanistan has always been difficult because of a lack of testing. The average daily number of reported new cases peaked in late June at more than 2,000 and has since fallen sharply, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. But it is likely that the figures do not reflect the actual spread of the virus.

    Afghanistan’s vaccination efforts have struggled since they began in the spring, beset by corruption, limited public health resources and widespread public skepticism. According to Our World in Data, less than 2 percent of Afghanistan’s population has been vaccinated.

    “In the midst of a pandemic, we’re extremely concerned by the large displacement of people and increasing cases of diarrhea, malnutrition, high blood pressure, probable cases of Covid-19 and reproductive health complications,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the W.H.O., said at a news conference.

    He said that W.H.O staff are still in Afghanistan and are “committed to delivering health services to the most vulnerable.”

    Many Afghans are vulnerable to diseases like polio, which has been eradicated in most of the world but is still endemic there. Fourteen million Afghans are suffering from hunger, United Nations officials said on Wednesday.

    Aid groups are struggling to provide humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan, as well as to the tens of thousands of refugees a week who are fleeing to neighboring countries.

    “The utter desperation for a way out of Afghanistan speaks powerfully to the sense of fear and uncertainty among many Afghans,” said Caroline Van Buren, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

    Refugee camps, with their crowded and often unsanitary conditions, can become incubators for the virus, though many camps have fared better than experts initially feared they would.

    U.N. officials said that their agencies in Afghanistan were in contact with the Taliban in an effort to coordinate aid and immunizations. Ms. Van Buren said the Taliban had so far provided protection for all of the refugee agency’s offices in the country.

    At the same time, though, the Taliban have resumed some of the practices common when they held power 20 years ago. Ms. Van Buren said officials had received reports of women being prohibited from going to work, and, in some areas, barred from leaving their homes without being accompanied by a close male relative.

    Some U.N. employees are pulling out. Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for the United Nations secretary general, said a group was leaving Kabul for Kazakhstan on Wednesday to set up a remote office there for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Mr. Dujarric declined to specify exactly how many were leaving, though he said the office in Almaty was expected to employ up to 100 people.

    Germans and Afghans arriving in Frankfurt, Germany, on Wednesday after being evacuated from Kabul.
    Credit…Armando Babani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has sent thousands of panicked Afghans scrambling to flee the country, but panic is also being felt in some other quarters: Some European politicians are terrified of another mass movement of Muslim asylum seekers.

    An influx of migrants, they fear, may fan the embers of the far-right and populist movements that reshaped European politics after a wave of asylum seekers sought refuge from the wars in Syria and Iraq in 2015.

    In Germany, even before the first group of 19 Afghan refugees landed on Wednesday, the line was making the rounds in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative camp: “2015 mustn’t be repeated.”

    Armin Laschet, who wants to succeed Ms. Merkel as chancellor after next month’s elections, said it on Monday. A party official used the same words shortly after. And then a government minister repeated them yet again.

    Support for anti-immigrant parties has been falling, along with the number of migrants. But with important elections looming in Germany and France, the line being drawn by European leaders is early and firm.

    That means Afghans may be facing a compassion deficit in Europe that may be insurmountable.

    It is not just Europe.

    Other countries, especially the United States, faces a similar quandary over accepting Afghan asylum seekers.

    Almost everywhere, governments have expressed general willingness to accept Afghans who worked alongside American forces or international aid groups. But they are wary of committing to the many thousands more who might seek to leave to avoid life under the Taliban.

    For now, the number of migrants over land routes has been relatively low.

    “We’re talking about thousands, not hundreds of thousands, who need and deserve our help, people who are on lists because they worked with us,” said Gerald Knaus, the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative.

    Given the overall drop in migration numbers in recent years, he said, it is “a straw man argument” to raise fears of another wave.

    A Taliban fighter in Kabul on Wednesday. According to intelligence officials, the warning that the demise of the Afghan government was days away never came.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    Intelligence reports presented to President Biden in the final days before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan this past week failed to predict the imminence of the Afghan government’s collapse, even after warnings had grown more grim in July, senior intelligence officials acknowledged on Wednesday.

    The intelligence agencies had been stepping up their warnings about the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan throughout the summer. Their reports grew more specific in July, noting how the Taliban had taken control of roads leading to Kabul and how the group had learned lessons from their takeover of the country in the 1990s.

    But senior administration officials acknowledged that as the pace of White House meetings on Afghanistan grew more frenzied in August and in the days leading up to the Taliban takeover this weekend, the intelligence agencies did not say the collapse was inevitable.

    Over the past year, intelligence agencies shrank their predictions of how quickly the Afghan government would fall, from two years to 18 months to six months to a month, according to current and former officials. But, according to intelligence officials, the warning that its demise was days away never came.

    “As the president indicated, this unfolded more quickly than we anticipated, including in the intelligence community,” Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement to The New York Times.

    Still, senior officials noted, the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies had throughout the fighting season in Afghanistan identified the risk of a rapid collapse and issued increasingly pessimistic reports about the Afghan government’s survival, particularly as President Ashraf Ghani resisted changing military strategies or creating a more inclusive government.

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    Flights took off from Kabul’s international airport as world governments worked to evacuate refugees and their citizens from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.CreditCredit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    During the frenzied first 48 hours after the collapse of the Afghan government, the desperate scenes at Kabul’s international airport early this week drew parallels to the fall of Saigon.

    Now, even though the airport is under the control of the U.S. military and evacuation flights have been stepped up, tens of thousands of Afghans are still struggling to find a way to escape Taliban rule.

    And the American experience in Vietnam is being invoked again — as an illustration of how much more the United States could be doing if it had the political will and international support that followed the American exit from Vietnam.

    After the war in Vietnam, a bipartisan consensus and collective sense of moral responsibility helped provide the framework for Operation New Life, which swiftly evacuated 130,000 vulnerable, mainly Vietnamese, people to a makeshift refugee camp on the island of Guam. From there, they were processed and moved to temporary migration centers across the United States.

    Over the course of years of sustained efforts, 1.4 million Vietnamese people eventually settled in the country.

    Now, the United States is trying to provide safety for a far smaller number, and has struggled in that effort.

    Pentagon officials said that the pace of the current flights had quickened after more American troops arrived to secure the Kabul airport, with military planes and a smaller number of commercial flights operating.

    “There are important parallels between the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the current situation, with implications for addressing current humanitarian needs,” said Alexander Betts, a professor of forced migration and international affairs at the University of Oxford.

    “The parallels should be inspiring,” he said, “and show that with political will and international leadership, large-scale resettlement is possible.”

    But he said there was now unlikely to be the same degree of political support for admitting large numbers of refugees.

    “The politics of refugee assistance is also very different in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, including public concerns relating to security and refugees from predominantly Muslim countries,” he said.

    António Guterres at the U.N. in August.
    Credit…United Naitons/EPA, via Shutterstock

    The United Nations said Wednesday that it was temporarily relocating some of its aid workers from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan to work remotely, but stressed that it intended to maintain a presence in the country.

    “The U.N. is committed to stay and deliver in support of the Afghan people in their hour of need,” a spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement Wednesday.

    The organization said a group of staff members was en route to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

    “In light of security and other constraints in Kabul and other parts of the country at the moment,” the statement said, “it was decided to move part of the U.N. staff out of the country. Personnel will return to Afghanistan as conditions permit.”

    The announcement came as humanitarian groups that also provide badly needed aid to the people of Afghanistan were regrouping. Many indicated that they intended to stay in the country, with the Taliban assuring them that their staff would not be harmed.

    “At this point, we have not received any specific threat for any of our offices,” Hassan Noor, Asia regional director for Save the Children, said in a briefing on Wednesday. He said Taliban representatives had met with the charity’s staff and told them they would not face consequences for delivering services.

    The organization, which offers health, education and nutrition support to Afghan children, said that its staff members — almost 1,800 people working across 10 provinces — would remain in Afghanistan to try to deliver services, depending on how the situation unfolded, and that many humanitarian organizations had also opted to stay.

    But as of Saturday, Save the Children programs, which reached about 1.6 million Afghans in 2020, were temporarily suspended, and Mr. Noor said the group had been working on safeguarding workers, some of whom had already been relocated.

    “We are extremely concerned about our staff,” he said, “and that is our top priority at the moment.”

    Information about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan remains “very murky,” said Mr. Noor, but even before last week, some three million people had already been reported displaced. About 14 million people were having trouble meeting daily food requirements because of an enduring drought in Afghanistan, and some two million children depended on nutrition services to survive.

    Girls at a school in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, this year.
    Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

    The previous Taliban rule in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, was a bleak period for Afghan women, who were barred from working outside the home or leaving the house without a male guardian. The Taliban eliminated schooling for girls and publicly flogged people who violated the group’s morality code.

    The question now is whether the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law will be as draconian as when the group last held power.

    Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different this time. In a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman said that women would be allowed to work and study. Another Taliban official said that women should participate in government.

    “We assure that there will be no violence against women,” the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said. “No prejudice against women will be allowed, but the Islamic values are our framework.” Pressed for details, he said only that women could participate in society “within the bounds of Islamic law.”

    But there are scattered signs that, at least in some areas, the Taliban have begun to reimpose the old order.

    Women in some provinces have been told not to leave home without a male relative escorting them. In Herat, in western Afghanistan, Taliban gunmen guarded the university’s gates and prevented female students and instructors from entering the campus on Tuesday, witnesses said.

    In the southern city of Kandahar, women’s health care clinics were shut down, a resident said. In some districts, girls’ schools have been closed since the Taliban seized control of them in November.

    Women there said they were starting to wear the head-to-toe burqa in the street, partly in fear and partly in anticipation of restrictions ordered by the Taliban.

    At Kabul University, in the capital, female students were told they were not allowed to leave their dorm rooms unless accompanied by a male guardian. Two students said they were effectively trapped because they had no male relatives in the city.

    In Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, Aliya Kazimy, a 27-year-old university professor, said that women shopping alone in the city’s bazaar had been turned away and told to return with male guardians.

    “I am from the generation that had a lot of opportunities after the fall of the Taliban 20 years ago,” she said in a text message. “I was able to achieve my goals of studying, and for a year I’ve been a university professor, and now my future is dark and uncertain. All these years of working hard and dreaming were for nothing. And the little girls who are just starting out, what future awaits them?”

    China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, right, with the Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, during a meeting in Tianjin in July.
    Credit…Li Ran/Xinhua, via Associated Press

    For China’s leaders, the chaotic scenes unfolding in Afghanistan have served as stinging vindication of their hostility to American might. But any smugness in Beijing could be premature.

    China is now left scrambling to judge how the American defeat could reshape the contest between the world’s two great powers. While the Taliban’s rout has weakened American prestige and its influence on China’s western frontier, it could also create new geopolitical dangers and security risks.

    Officials in Beijing worry that extremists could use Afghanistan to regroup on China’s flank and sow violence around the region, even as the Taliban look to deep-pocketed countries like China for aid and investment. The American military withdrawal could also allow the United States to direct its planning and matériel toward countering Chinese power across Asia.

    “There should be anxiety rather than glee in Beijing,” said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Ending the military presence in Afghanistan frees up resources and attention to focus on the long-term rivalry with China.”

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    Afghanistan Live Updates: 20-Year U.S. War Ending as It Began, With Taliban Ruling Afghanistan

    announced on Twitter that he was forming a coordinating council together with Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Afghan delegation to peace talks, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hesb-i-Islami party, to manage a peaceful transfer of power. Mr. Karzai called on both government and Taliban forces to act with restraint.

    But the Taliban appeared to ignore his appeal and advanced into the city on its own terms.

    The Taliban’s lead negotiator in talks with the government, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, congratulated all of Afghanistan for the victory. “Now it will be shown how we can serve our nation,” he said. “We can assure that our nation has a peaceful life and a better future.”

    Mr. Baradar made the comments in a video posted on social media, surrounded by other members of the Taliban delegation to the talks in Doha, Qatar.

    “There was no expectation that we would achieve victory in this war,” he said. “But this came with the help of Allah, therefore we should be thankful to Him, be humble in front of Him, so that we do not act arrogantly.”

    Al Jazeera reported that it had interviewed Taliban fighters who were holding a news conference in the presidential palace in Kabul, the capital. The fighters said they were working to secure Kabul so that leaders in Qatar and outside the capital could return safely. Al Jazeera reported that the fighters had taken down the flag of Afghanistan.

    As it became clear that Taliban fighters were entering Kabul, thousands of Afghans who had sought refuge there after fleeing the insurgents’ brutal military offensive watched with growing alarm as the local police seemed to fade from their usual checkpoints. The U.S. Embassy warned Americans to not head to the airport in Kabul after reports that the facility was taking fire, and said that the situation was “changing quickly.”

    Late in Kabul’s evening, President Ghani released a written statement on Facebook saying he had departed the country to save the capital from further bloodshed.

    “Today I was presented with a hard choice,” he wrote. “I should stand to face the armed Taliban who wanted to enter the presidential palace or leave the dear country that I dedicated my life to protecting the past twenty years.”

    “If I had stayed, countless countrymen would have been martyred and Kabul city would have been ruined,” he added, “in which case a disaster would have been brought upon this city of five million.”

    At 6:30 p.m. local time, the Taliban issued a statement that their forces were moving into police districts in order to maintain security in areas that had been abandoned by the government security forces. Taliban fighters, meeting no resistance, took up positions in parts of the city, after Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, posted the statement on Twitter.

    “The Islamic Emirates ordered its forces to enter the areas of Kabul city from which the enemy has left because there is risk of theft and robbery,” the statement said. The Taliban had been ordered not to harm civilians and not to enter individual homes, it added. “Our forces are entering Kabul city with all caution.”

    As the sun set behind the mountains, the traffic was clogged up as crowds grew bigger, with more and more Taliban fighters appearing on motorbikes, police pickups and even a Humvee that once belonged to the American-sponsored Afghan security forces.

    Earlier in the afternoon, Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal announced that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul, and that his forces were maintaining security.

    “The city’s security is guaranteed. There will be no attack on the city,” he said. “The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God willing, power will be transferred.”

    Mr. Mirzakwal later announced a 9 p.m. curfew in the capital, and called on its residents to go home.

    Mr. Ghani left Kabul in a plane with his wife, Rula Ghani, and two close aides, and arrived in Uzbekistan, according to a member of the Afghan delegation in Doha, Qatar, that has been in peace negotiations with the Taliban since last year. The official asked not to be named because he did not want to be identified speaking about the president’s movements.

    It could not be confirmed that Mr. Ghani was in Uzbekistan, and there were reports that he had gone to other countries.

    In a Facebook video, Mr. Abdullah, former chief executive of the Afghan government, criticized Mr. Ghani for fleeing.

    “That the former president of Afghanistan has left the country and its people in this bad situation, God will call him to account and the people of Afghanistan will make their judgment,” Mr. Abdullah said in the video.

    In negotiations being managed by Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Ghani had been set to travel to Doha on Sunday with a larger group to negotiate the transfer of power, but flew instead to Uzbekistan, the peace delegation member said.

    Mr. Ghani had resisted pressure to step down. In a recorded speech aired on Saturday, he pledged to “prevent further instability” and called for “remobilizing” the country’s military. But the president was increasingly isolated, and his words seemed detached from the reality around him.

    With rumors rife and reliable information hard to come by, the streets were filled during the day with scenes of panic and desperation.

    “Greetings, the Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping,” said Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, in a post shared widely on Facebook. Filming herself as she fled on foot, out of breath and clutching at her headscarf, she shouted at others to escape while they could.

    “Hey woman, girl, don’t go that way!” she called out. “Some people don’t know what is going on,” she went on. “Where are you going? Go quickly.”

    Wais Omari, 20, a street vendor in the city, said the situation was already dire and he feared for the future.

    “If it gets worse, I will hide in my home,” he said.

    Christina Goldbaum, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Carlotta Gall, Ruhullah Khapalwak, Sharif Hassan, Jim Huylebroek, Najim Rahim, and Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

    Leaving Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Sunday as the Taliban looked set to take over.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    Panic gripped the Afghan capital, Kabul, Sunday as Taliban fighters started arriving in the city, inmates broke out of the main prison on the east side of the city, and the American-backed government appeared to crumble.

    By the afternoon, President Ashraf Ghani was reported to have fled. And as American forces focused their energies on evacuation flights for embassy staff and other personnel, Afghan government officials were shown in video footage accepting a handover of power to their Taliban counterparts in several cities.

    Early in the day, senior Afghan politicians were seen boarding planes at Kabul airport. Bagram Air Base was taken by Taliban forces midday Sunday as was the provincial town of Khost in eastern Afghanistan, according to Afghan media reports. The fall of Khost was part of a domino-like collapse of power of astonishing speed that saw city after city fall in just the last week, leaving Kabul as the last major city in government hands.

    Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal announced in a video statement in the early afternoon that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul and sought to reassure residents, saying that the security forces would remain in their posts to ensure security in the city.

    “As the minister of interior, we have ordered all Afghan National Security Forces divisions and members to stabilize Kabul,” he said in a video statement released on the Facebook page of the ministry at 2 p.m. local time. “There will be no attack on the city. The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God Willing, power will be transferred.”

    But residents seemed unconvinced by their leaders’ assurances. In the center of the city people were pictured painting over advertisements and posters of women at beauty salons, apparently preparing for a takeover by the fundamentalist Taliban who do not allow images of humans or animal life, and have traditionally have banned music and the mixing of the sexes.

    Residents confirmed that police had abandoned many of their posts or changed into civilian clothes. The Taliban denied rumors that their chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was already in the capital and preparing to take over control at the Interior Ministry.

    Throughout the day, surreal scenes played out as it appeared ever more clear the Taliban were taking over.

    The insurgency has long had its own power structure of shadow governors appointed for every province, and Sunday it was clear who was in control in strategic areas. The governors and tribal and political leaders who had been in power were shown in videos formally handing control to their Taliban counterparts in the strategic cities of Kandahar, the main stronghold of the south, and in Nangarhar, the main city of the east.

    But in Kabul fears of the city being overrun were running high after a breakout of prisoners, many of them members of the Taliban, from the main prison at Pul-i-Charkhi.

    “Look at this, the whole people are let free,” a man said as he filmed a video footage of people carrying bundles walking away from the prison, posted on Facebook. “This is the Day of Judgment.”

    The breakout seems to have been by the prisoners from the inside, rather than an attack by Taliban forces from the outside.

    Some Afghans still found room for humor amid the chaos: “Taliban have reached Kabul airport … their speed is faster than 5G,” one resident of Kabul posted on Facebook.

    But others fled, though it is unclear where they could go with the Taliban in control of so much of the country.

    “Greetings, the Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping,” said Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, in a post shared widely on Facebook. Filming herself as she fled on foot, out of breath and clutching at her head scarf, she called on passers-by to get away.

    The former president Hamid Karzai and other leaders tried to step into the vacuum, and announced they were not leaving. Mr. Karzai, who has been involved in discussions with the Taliban for an interim government, posted a video on his Facebook page of himself with his daughters in his garden as helicopters sounded overhead.

    “My dear residents of Kabul, I want to say that I and my daughters and family are here with you,” he said. “We are working with the leader of the Taliban to resolve the difficulties of Afghanistan in a peaceful way.”

    Abdullah Abdullah, who has led recent talks with the Taliban also made a video statement from his garden.

    “The last few days have been very hard for our countrymen all over the country,” he said. He called on the Taliban to negotiate “so that the security situation does not deteriorate and our people do not suffer further.”

    As news broke that the president had left the country, Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a former head of intelligence who has been fighting against the Taliban from the 1990s, tweeted that he would not surrender.

    Yet the Afghan security forces seemed to be melting away. Abdul Jabar Safi, head of the Kabul Industrial Park, an area of hundreds of factories and businesses, said business owners were trying to fend off looters with a few pistols and rifles left them by the government guards.

    “We want the Taliban to reach us as soon as possible so they can secure the area,” he said when reached by telephone. “We are in touch with the Taliban and they have assured us that until they reach the industrial park we must keep the security of the park by ourselves.”

    Officials at the National Museum of Kabul on the western side of Kabul also appealed through a western official for help, saying that police guards had abandoned their post outside the museum and that they feared the museum, which was badly looted in the 1990s, would fall prey again to thieves.

    The entrance to the United States embassy in Kabul after staff were evacuated to the airport on Sunday.
    Credit…Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. embassy warned Americans not to head to the airport in Kabul because of a situation that was “changing quickly” after the Taliban entered the city on Sunday.

    Witnesses at the civilian domestic terminal said they had heard occasional gunshots and said thousands of people had crammed into the terminal and filled the parking lots, desperately seeking flights out.

    “The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport,” the embassy said in a statement. “There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place.”

    Late Sunday, the State and Defense Departments issued a statement saying the U.S. was working to secure control of the airport and to speed up the evacuation using civilian and military flights.

    “Tomorrow and over the coming days,” the statement said, “we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”

    The Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday, completing the near total takeover of Afghanistan two decades after the American military drove them from power. A frenzied evacuation of U.S. diplomats and civilians kicked into high gear last week, while Afghans made a mad dash to banks, their homes and the airport. Crowds of people ran down the streets as the sound of gunfire echoed in downtown Kabul.

    Helicopter after helicopter — including massive Chinooks with their twin engines, and speedy Black Hawks that had been the workhorse of the grinding war — touched down and then took off loaded with passengers. Some shot flares overhead.

    On Saturday, President Biden accelerated the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to aid in the evacuation. On Sunday, orders went out to deploy another 1,000, temporarily bringing the U.S. presence there to 6,000, according to a Pentagon official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and was granted anonymity.

    Those being evacuated over the weekend included a core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul, according to a senior administration official. They were being moved to a compound at the international airport, where they would stay for an unspecified amount of time, the official said.

    The runway of the airport was filled with a constellation of uniforms from different nations. They joined contractors, diplomats and civilians all trying to catch a flight out of the city. Those who were eligible to fly were given special bracelets, denoting their status as noncombatants.

    For millions of Afghans, including tens of thousands who assisted the U.S. efforts in the country for years, there were no bracelets. They were stuck in the city.

    Hundreds of people swarmed to the civilian side of the airport in the hopes of boarding planes out, but by evening scores were still waiting inside the terminal and milling around on the apron amid the constant roar of planes taking off from the adjacent military air base. A long line of people waited outside the check-in gate, unsure if the flights they had booked out of the country would arrive.

    While President Biden has defended his decision to hold firm and pull the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, his administration has become increasingly worried about images that could evoke a foreign policy disaster of the past: the fall of Saigon at the end of the conflict in Vietnam in 1975.

    Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Christina Goldbaum, Sharif Hassan, Jim Huylebroek, Najim Rahimand Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

    The white Taliban flag flying above a Coca-Cola advertisement at a roundabout in Kabul on Sunday.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    A conference call between members of Congress and the Biden administration’s top diplomatic and military leaders on Afghanistan turned contentious on Sunday, as lawmakers pressed the administration on how intelligence on the Taliban could have failed so badly and how long the military will secure the Kabul airport.

    Lawmakers said the 45-minute call with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not particularly revelatory.

    “It was, I would say, a rote exercise in telling us what we had already learned from the media and social media,” said Representative Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan and a former Army reservist who did conflict analysis in Afghanistan.

    The questioning was pointed and at times contentious. Much of it centered on which Afghans the United States would get out of Afghanistan — and how.

    Representative Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who was a State Department official in the Obama administration and a former leader of Human Rights Watch, pressed for answers on how long the U.S. military would be able to keep its hold on the Kabul airport, so that charter and commercial flights can continue.

    Lawmakers also asked whether the Afghans that Americans are trying to help leave would go beyond those who worked for the embassy, interpreters for the military and others with special immigrant visas. The briefers assured them that the United States would try to help a broader group, including human rights and women’s rights activists, journalists and students at the American University of Afghanistan.

    “I want to make sure we don’t pick up and leave when all the Americans and S.I.V.’s are out,” Mr. Malinowski said, referring to the special visa holders.

    But there is no guarantee that all Afghans who want to get out will be able to do so.

    “It is overwhelmingly clear to me that this has been a cascade of failures at the Defense Department, with the intelligence community and within our political community,” Mr. Meijer said. “And nothing on the call gave me the confidence that even the magnitude of the failures has been comprehended.”

    A rally outside the White House on Sunday.
    Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

    As their homeland fell once again into the hands of the Taliban, more than 300 Afghan Americans went to the White House on Sunday to make their frustrations known.

    Demonstrators, some with young children and babies in strollers, spilled into Lafayette Square, wielding signs that read “Help Afghan kids” and “America betrayed us.”

    Some held up the flag of Afghanistan. Others draped it over their shoulders. They stood in a circle around organizers who used bull horns to get their message out.

    “We want justice,” they declared.

    Among those attending the three-hour protest was Sohaila Samadyar, a 43-year-old banker in Washington, who was there with her 10-year-old son. Ms. Samadyar, who immigrated to America in 2000, said she wanted to raise awareness about Afghans still stuck in the country, like her brother and sister in Kabul.

    Ms. Samadyar said that she voted for President Biden in November, but that she now regretted that decision, “disappointed” in his handling of the war.

    “He has basically disregarded the Afghan community,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how fast everything has changed.”

    Yasameen Anwar, a 19-year-old sophomore in college, drove about three hours from Richmond, Va., with her friends and sister to attend the protest. Ms. Anwar said she was concerned about the future of women and children in Afghanistan.

    “Before, when America was in Afghanistan, there was hope in that we were fighting the Taliban and that they could finally be defeated after 20 years,” Ms. Anwar said. “But by the Biden administration completely stepping out, it’s giving them no hope anymore.”

    A first-generation Afghan American, Ms. Anwar said she had always dreamed of visiting her family’s home country. She now doubts that she will be able to go.

    “It just seems like we’re never going to get peace,” Ms. Anwar said.

    Taliban fighters greeting bystanders as they drive through Kabul in an Afghan Police vehicle on Sunday.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    As the U.S. raced to evacuate personnel from its embassy in Kabul, human and refugee rights groups sharply criticized the Biden administration for not moving faster to relocate America’s Afghan allies from a country where they are at risk of lethal Taliban reprisals.

    “The Biden administration has taken too long to create a process that ensures safety for Afghans who served with American military and civil society actors,” Jennifer Quigley, senior director for government affairs at Human Rights First, said in a statement. “As Afghanistan’s military and political leaders abandon their posts, the United States risks abandoning allies who stood with us, who translated for and protected our troops.”

    “Unless there is a swift and meaningful effort to evacuate the thousands of allies and their families to the United States or a U.S. territory, we will have broken our promise to leave no one behind,” she added.

    Congress this year created the Special Immigrant Visa program to allow Afghans who worked with the Americans over the past 20 years to relocate to the United States. The State Department has given eligibility to tens of thousands of people and their families, and some have been flown out of Afghanistan.

    But the rate of evacuation has not matched the speed of the Afghan government collapse. “If evacuation flights continue at their current pace, it would take until March 2023 to evacuate all the eligible Afghans out of the country,” Ms. Quigley said.

    Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that Afghans who are not eligible for the program — including ones who worked for U.S.-based media organizations and nongovernmental organizations — could apply for high-priority refugee status.

    But U.S. officials said those Afghans, who may number in the tens of thousands, must first leave the country under their own auspices merely to begin an application process that can take more than a year. With the Taliban in control of cities, highways and border crossings, it may now be too late for many of them to leave.

    Taliban fighters roared into the city on motorbikes and in police pickup trucks.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    The fall of Kabul follows days in which one urban center after another fell to the insurgents with astonishing speed, often with little or no resistance, leaving the government in control of nothing but fast-shrinking pockets of the country.

    The insurgents took Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north, late on Saturday, only an hour after breaking through the front lines at the city’s edge. Soon after, government security forces and militias — including those led by the warlords Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor — fled, effectively handing control to the insurgents.

    On Sunday morning, the Taliban seized the eastern city of Jalalabad. In taking that provincial capital and surrounding areas, the insurgents gained control of the Torkham border crossing, a major trade and transit route between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They took over Bagram Air Base, which had been the hub of U.S. military power in the country until the Americans handed control of it back to Afghan forces six weeks earlier.

    Later on Sunday, Taliban fighters began taking up positions in Kabul, the capital — the last major city that had been under government control — as government forces melted away and the president fled the country.

    The Taliban offensive, which started in May when the United States began withdrawing troops, gathered speed over the past week. In city after city, the militants took down Afghan government flags and hoisted their own white banners.

    Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken acknowledged on Sunday that the offensive had moved faster than U.S. officials had expected.

    Despite two decades of war with American-led forces, the Taliban have survived and thrived, without giving up their vision of creating a state governed by a stringent Islamic code.

    After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, movie theaters were closed, the Kabul television station was shut down and the playing of all music was banned. Schools were closed to girls.

    Despite many Afghans’ memories of years under Taliban rule before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the insurgents have taken control of much of the country in recent days with only minimal resistance.

    Their rapid successes have exposed the weakness of an Afghan military that the United States spent more than $83 billion to support over the past two decades. As the insurgents’ campaign has accelerated, soldiers and police officers have abandoned the security forces in ever greater numbers, with the cause for which they risked their lives appearing increasingly to be lost.

    The speed of the Taliban’s advance has thrown exit planning into disarray. While many analysts had believed that the Afghan military could be overrun after international forces withdrew, they thought it would happen over months and years.

    President Biden has accelerated the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan to help get American citizens out. He made it clear that he would not reverse his decision to withdraw all combat forces.

    “I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats,” Mr. Biden said on Saturday afternoon. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”

    With their seizure of Jalalabad on Sunday, and its entry into Kabul, the Taliban effectively took control of Afghanistan. Planes departing the airport in Kabul, the capital, were filled with people fleeing the city.

    Taliban members at the entrance to the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on Sunday.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday morning after the Taliban appeared to take control of Afghanistan, where the U.N. has maintained an extensive aid operation since the early days of the American-led occupation two decades ago.

    Secretary General António Guterres, who had repeatedly condemned attacks on Afghan civilians and implored the Taliban and government representatives to negotiate a peaceful settlement, was expected to speak at the emergency meeting. On Friday, as it was becoming increasingly clear that the Afghan government was collapsing as Taliban fighters walked into city after city, Mr. Guterres said the country was “spinning out of control.”

    It remains unclear how the Taliban would be regarded by the United Nations should the militant movement declare itself the legitimate power in Afghanistan. Many countries in the 193-member organization have condemned the Taliban’s brutality and would most likely not recognize such a declaration.

    The United Nations employs roughly 3,000 employees who are Afghan and about 720 international staff members in Afghanistan, but roughly half of the international staff have been working outside the country since the pandemic started last year.

    U.N. officials have repeatedly said there were no plans to evacuate any staff members from the country. But Mr. Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters last week that the organization was evaluating the security situation “hour by hour.”

    The Taliban have pledged not to interfere in United Nations aid operations. But on July 30, a U.N. office in the western city of Herat was attacked by the Taliban, and a local security official guarding the office was killed.

    The main U.N. mission, based in Kabul, is known as the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or Unama, and was established in 2002 to help create a government following the American-led invasion.

    Taliban fighters in Kunduz last week.
    Credit…Abdullah Sahil/Associated Press

    It was his first day as the Taliban-appointed mayor of Kunduz, and Gul Mohammad Elias was on a charm offensive.

    Last Sunday, the insurgents seized control of the city in northern Afghanistan, which was in shambles after weeks of fighting. Power lines were down. The water supply, powered by generators, did not reach most residents. Trash and rubble littered the streets.

    The civil servants who could fix those problems were hiding at home, terrified of the Taliban. So the insurgent-commander-turned-mayor summoned some to his new office, to persuade them to return to work.

    But day by day, as municipal offices stayed mostly empty, Mr. Elias grew more frustrated — and his rhetoric grew harsher.

    Taliban fighters began going door to door, searching for absentee city workers. Hundreds of armed men set up checkpoints across the city. At the entrance to the regional hospital, a new notice appeared on the wall: Employees must return to work or face punishment from the Taliban.

    The experience of those in Kunduz offers a glimpse of how the Taliban may govern, and what may be in store for the rest of the country.

    In just days, the insurgents, frustrated by their failed efforts to cajole civil servants back to work, began instilling terror, according to residents reached by telephone.

    “I am afraid, because I do not know what will happen and what they will do,” said one, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by the Taliban. “We have to smile at them because we are scared, but deeply we are unhappy.”

    Nearly every shop in Kunduz was closed. The shopkeepers, fearing their stores would be looted by Taliban fighters, had taken their goods home. Every afternoon the streets emptied of residents, who feared airstrikes as government planes buzzed in the sky. And about 500 Taliban fighters were stationed around the city, manning checkpoints on nearly every street corner.

    At the regional hospital, armed Taliban were keeping track of attendance. Out of fear, the health worker said, female staff wore sky-blue burqas as they assisted in surgeries and tended to wounds from airstrikes, which still splintered the city each afternoon.

    American and Afghan soldiers attended a handover ceremony at a military camp in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in May.
    Credit…Afghan Ministry of Defense, via Associated Press

    With the Taliban on the verge of regaining power in Afghanistan, President Biden has defended his decision to leave the country after two decades of U.S. military involvement.

    In a statement on Saturday, Mr. Biden said that the United States had invested nearly $1 trillion in Afghanistan over the past 20 years and had trained and equipped more than 300,000 Afghan security forces, including maintaining the Asian country’s air force.

    “One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Mr. Biden said. “And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”

    Mr. Biden’s statement came hours after the Taliban seized Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, but before the group captured the eastern city of Jalalabad on Sunday, The group entered Kabul, the capital, on Sunday as President Ashraf Ghani fled.

    Mr. Biden partly blamed President Donald J. Trump for the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan, saying that the deal made with the Taliban in 2020 had set a deadline of May 1 this year for the withdrawal of American forces and left the group “in the strongest position militarily since 2001.”

    “I faced a choice — follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict,” Mr. Biden said.

    This year, a study group appointed by Congress urged the Biden administration to abandon the May 1 deadline and slow the withdrawal of American troops, saying that a strict adherence to the timeline could lead Afghanistan into civil war. Pentagon officials made similar entreaties, but Mr. Biden maintained his long-held position that it was time for Afghanistan to fend for itself.

    Since international troops began withdrawing in May, the Taliban have pursued their military takeover far more swiftly than U.S. intelligence agencies had anticipated. On Saturday, Mr. Biden accelerated the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to help ensure the safe evacuation from Kabul of U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for the American government.

    On Sunday, a decision was made to send another 1,000, temporarily bringing to 6,000 the number of American troops in the country.

    In his statement, Mr. Biden warned the Taliban that “any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan, that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong U.S. military response.”

    Displaced Afghan women pleading for help from a police officer in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last month.
    Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

    A high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, worries that she now will not be allowed to graduate.

    The girl, Wahida Sadeqi, 17, like many Afghan civilians in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal and ahead of a Taliban victory, keeps asking the same question: What will happen to me?

    The American withdrawal, which effectively ends the longest war on foreign soil in United States history, is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.

    “I am so worried about my future. It seems so murky. If the Taliban take over, I lose my identity,” said Ms. Sadeqi, an 11th grader at Pardis High School in Kabul. “It is about my existence. It is not about their withdrawal. I was born in 2004, and I have no idea what the Taliban did to women, but I know women were banned from everything.”

    Uncertainty hangs over virtually every facet of life in Afghanistan. It is unclear what the future holds and whether the fighting will ever stop. For two decades, American leaders have pledged peace, prosperity, democracy, the end of terrorism and rights for women.

    Few of those promises have materialized in vast areas of Afghanistan, but now even in the cities where real progress occurred, there is fear that everything will be lost when the Americans leave.

    The Taliban, the extremist group that once controlled most of the country and continues to fight the government, insist that the elected president step down. Militias are increasing in prominence and power, and there is talk of a lengthy civil war.

    Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, who sought refuge in Pakistan, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.

    The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.

    Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it barred women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes — though this was already custom for many women in rural parts of the country.

    “It is too early to comment on the subject. We need to know much more,” Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator who is involved in the continuing peace talks with the Taliban, said in April. “One thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country — no one can deny them their rights or status.”

    Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken this month at the State Department.
    Credit…Pool photo by Brendan Smialowski

    Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Sunday that the defeat of Afghan security forces that has led to the Taliban’s takeover “happened more quickly than we anticipated,” although he maintained the Biden administration’s position that keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan was not in American interests.

    “This is heart-wrenching stuff,” said Mr. Blinken, who looked shaken, in an interview on CNN after a night that saw members of the Taliban enter the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the shuttering of the U.S. Embassy as the last remaining American diplomats in Afghanistan were moved to a facility at the city’s airport for better protection.

    Mr. Blinken stopped short of saying that all American diplomats would return to the United States, repeating an intent to maintain a small core of officials in Kabul.

    But he forcefully defended the administration’s decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, saying it could have been vulnerable to Taliban attacks had the United States reneged on an agreement brokered under President Donald J. Trump for all foreign forces to leave the country.

    “We would have been back at war with the Taliban,” Mr. Blinken said, calling that “something the American people simply can’t support — that is the reality.”

    He said it was not in American interests to devote more time, money and, potentially, casualties, to Afghanistan at a time that the United States was also facing long-term strategic challenges from China and Russia. But, Mr. Blinken said, American forces will remain in the region to confront any terrorist threat against the United States at home that might arise from Afghanistan.

    He also appeared to demand more conditions for the prospect of recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government or establishing a formal diplomatic relationship with them.

    Earlier, the Biden administration had said the Taliban, in order to acquire international financial support, must never allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a haven, must not take Kabul by force and must not attack Americans.

    On Sunday, Mr. Blinken said the Taliban must also uphold basic rights of citizens, particularly women who gained new freedoms to go to work and school after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

    There will be no recognition of a Taliban government “if they’re not sustaining the basic rights of the Afghan people, and if they revert to supporting or harboring terrorists who might strike us,” the secretary of state said.

    Mr. Blinken’s comments were swiftly criticized by the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, who said the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan “is going to be a stain on this president and his presidency.”

    “They totally blew this one,” Mr. McCaul said. “They completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban.”

    “I hate to say this: I hope we don’t have to go back there,” he said. “But it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time.”

    Lights in the windows of the United States embassy in Kabul on Sunday night.
    Credit…Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

    More than a hundred journalists employed by the American government’s own radio stations remain in Afghanistan as the Taliban take power, U.S. officials and Afghan journalists said Sunday.

    “Journalists are being left behind,” said Rateb Noori, the Kabul bureau news manager of Radio Azadi, in a telephone interview from Kabul on Sunday.

    The station, a branch of the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty services, formerly called Radio Free Afghanistan, broadcast through the day Sunday, including airing an interview with a Taliban spokesman. Its sister station, Voice of America, reported on Sunday that one of its reporters “was in the passport office when everyone was told to leave immediately and go home.”

    The Afghans working for the U.S. government broadcasters in Kabul and around the country have long been targets of the insurgents, who killed a journalist with Radio Free Afghanistan in a targeted bombing in November. They are among the most exposed of hundreds of Afghans who have worked with American news organizations since the arrival of U.S. troops in 2001, and media organizations have been scrambling to help local employees evacuate. The U.S. government made journalists eligible for a visa program that could allow them to leave the country. They have yet to be evacuated and the window to do so is closing quickly.

    The acting interim chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the broadcasters, said in an email to staff Sunday that the agency is “doing everything in our power to protect” journalists and “will not back down in our mission to inform, engage, and connect Afghans in support of freedom and democracy.”

    The president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jamie Fly, said in a text message that the service is “doing everything possible to make sure they can safely continue their work.”

    Mr. Noori, who was awake late on Sunday because he was worried about looters at his home, said there was no protection and little certainty — including whether the stations will continue to broadcast Monday.

    “Everybody is locked down in their homes, and no one knows what happens tomorrow,” he said.

    Afghan journalists have little to do but rely on early Taliban promises that they will not attack members of the news media.

    “Having experience last time of their role in Afghanistan, I think they cannot keep their promises — they cannot control their people,” he said. “I’m just hoping that we can survive for a while, and then let’s see if we have a way out to any neighboring country,” Mr. Noori said.

    Mujeeb Angaar, who worked for Radio Free Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013 before fleeing the country, said in a telephone interview from his home in Canada that he was told by the Taliban at the time that he “should be killed, because you work for Jews, you work for the CIA.”

    The American-backed services “will be the first target,” he said.

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