Rahmat Gul/AP
Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021. Thousands of people packed into the Afghan capital's airport on Monday, rushing the tarmac and pushing onto planes in desperate attempts to flee after the Taliban overthrew the Western-backed government.

To stay or go? Afghans brace for Taliban rule as US exits.

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Before Sunday’s stunning capture of Kabul, the capital had been a magnet for Afghans fleeing the Taliban’s rapid military advance. Now that Afghan political leaders have given up the fight, citizens who fear Taliban retribution are desperately seeking ways to escape the country. The Taliban control Afghan border crossings, and road travel is increasingly risky. 

For Afghans, the only certainty is the scale of American defeat amid fears that the archconservative Taliban will reverse two decades of gains in women’s and human rights. Some are asking if the Taliban, who held power in Kabul before the U.S. invasion in 2001, might moderate their ideology and seek an accommodation with Western powers.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has caused many Afghans to flee to the airport, go into hiding, or stay at home. Our reporters talk to people in three cities about how they’re managing in a deeply uncertain moment.

But many see little reason to believe the Taliban’s propaganda about serving the Afghan people. And the messaging on the battlefield tells another story: Taliban fighters are told they are fighting to expel foreign invaders and their “puppets” in Kabul.

“All the residents of Kabul are scared and live a few steps away from death,” says Zarghona Alakozai, a female judge who has been living under police protection. “We really feel like we are dying because once I lived under the Taliban. ... What will my life be like now?”

The shock realization of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban crystallized for Zarghona Alakozai as she raced home Sunday from the law courts in Kabul.

Her ears were ringing with the panicked cries of Afghans that the Taliban had arrived in the capital. On the way she found Afghan police officers begging their superiors to let them strip off their uniforms and give up their guns to the Taliban, so as to save themselves.

The female judge confronted the men, pleading.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has caused many Afghans to flee to the airport, go into hiding, or stay at home. Our reporters talk to people in three cities about how they’re managing in a deeply uncertain moment.

“Why are you surrendering? ... Fight the Taliban!” Ms. Alakozai says she shouted. One officer replied, adding an apology: “Our [political] leaders are traitors; they don’t allow us to fight and they fled. We have to surrender. We are sorry, we can’t defend you.”

The episode – repeated countless times in recent weeks, as U.S.-trained Afghan security forces collapsed in the face of a Taliban juggernaut, often without a shot being fired ­– is emblematic of how the 20-year American project to build a functional Afghan state imploded.

Images of bearded, black-turbaned Taliban fighters taking down the Afghan flag yesterday in the abandoned offices of President Ashraf Ghani, hours after he fled the country, illustrate how the arc of Afghanistan’s history has now come full circle since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

For Afghans, the only certainty is the scale of American defeat amid fears that the archconservative Taliban will reverse two decades of gains in women’s and human rights, and expectations that had been raised of a more hopeful future.

Now Afghans face living under the self-declared Islamic Emirate imposed by a Taliban that is arguably stronger than it was in the 1990s and can claim a propaganda victory in defeating a superpower.

Since Sunday, the unopposed arrival of the militants in Kabul has prompted panic, with banks, passport, and visa offices overwhelmed, and a mob of thousands at the airport swarming planes to escape, as U.S. troops fired their guns to disperse crowds. Several Afghans died as they fell from the undercarriages of U.S. military evacuation planes during takeoff, videos show.  

Zabi Karimi/AP
Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, one day after Mr. Ghani vowed to fight.

Some changes in Kabul were immediately evident Monday. Women were barely seen on the streets, and most shops were closed. Armed Taliban fighters – many of them teenagers – patrolled the streets in open-back trucks.

Afternoon prayers at the large Abdul Rahman mosque were packed with hundreds of Taliban fighters, many of whom had slept inside overnight. They included several former inmates – two of them Islamic State militants – freshly freed from an Afghan prison at Bagram Airfield.

The newly installed Taliban prayer leader at the mosque praised the jihadis for bringing an Islamic government that he said will ensure a “very peaceful situation.” He called on Afghans to “help our fighters for better security,” and said everyone should come to prayers on time.

“Serve and secure our people”

For months, as U.S. forces began their rapid drawdown, Taliban representatives have attempted a charm offensive on Afghans, including those in Kabul whom they had castigated as infidels for their Westernized ways and cooperation with foreign forces.

In a video statement from Doha, Qatar, where Taliban leaders have held talks with U.S. diplomats that spanned the Trump and Biden administrations, lead negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar said the group’s victory was unexpected and that it “should show humility in front of Allah. ... Now it’s about how we serve and secure our people and ensure their future to the best of our ability.”

But many Afghans won’t be convinced by a Taliban leadership that has reneged repeatedly on promises after signing a withdrawal agreement in Doha in February 2020 with the Trump administration. Those broken promises include a reduction in violence and commitments not to attack urban centers; the U.S. also extracted a pledge, which the Taliban didn’t break, not to attack retreating U.S. troops.

On the battlefield, the consistent message to Taliban fighters has been of military victory over foreign invaders and their “puppets” in Kabul.

“We will expel foreigners from this Islamic land, including the U.S. and its other occupying partners, including its dissidents,” a Taliban commander in northwestern Faryab province told The Christian Science Monitor Friday.

“The United States will flee with the infidel countries in disgrace,” the commander, known as Mullah Aleem, predicted. There would be no room, either, for Afghans who consider the Taliban terrorists, he said. “They have to either flee and we’ll kill them, or they accept the laws of the Mujahideen,” he said.  

Gulabuddin Amiri/AP
Taliban fighters raise their flag at the provincial governor's house in Ghazni, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2021. The capital, Kabul, also fell to the Taliban on Sunday.

As a female judge for nine years, Ms. Alakozai had received frequent Taliban death threats because of her gender and her official role. Before Sunday’s takeover, she hadn’t slept for three nights, haunted by the possibility of the Taliban return – and fear that she would be killed and her 5-month-old daughter would become an orphan.

“All the residents of Kabul are scared and live a few steps away from death,” says Ms. Alakozai. “We really feel like we are dying because once I lived under the Taliban. ... What will my life be like now?”

The Taliban have spoken of giving “amnesty” to members of the government or Afghans who have helped foreign security forces. But this rings hollow after several months of targeted killings of officials, civil society activists, and journalists that have raised fears of a bloody purge.

Before taking Kabul, the Taliban had captured more than half of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals over the past week alone – from Kandahar in the south to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad in the east. This strategy isolated the Afghan capital and made its surrender seem inevitable.

In city after city, Taliban insurgents used a combination of threats and political inducements to convince local leaders to surrender and Afghan National Army (ANA) and police forces to lay down their arms. By capturing stocks of weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and other supplies, the Taliban accelerated their advance on Kabul, according to phone interviews with Afghan commanders and officials in contested areas.

In Kandahar, for example, one Afghan paramilitary commander recalled an intense battle last week on the city’s outskirts near the compound of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

“Suddenly they [the Taliban] were at our front door. It was almost hand-to-hand fighting,” he said, requesting anonymity due to security concerns.

Then he received an unexpected phone call from the governor of Kandahar province, who ordered him to stop fighting. At first, he refused to comply. But without the possibility of resupply of ammunition, food, and water, he eventually negotiated his retreat before Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, fell Thursday.

Leniency for captured troops

In recent weeks the Taliban have made public displays of leniency toward captured ANA soldiers, says one Afghan official in the eastern province of Konar.

“They put flowers on their heads and give them clothes and money and let them go home,” he says. “So everyone thinks, ‘If I fight, I’m going to die. But if I don’t fight, they’re not going to kill me,’” says the official, who asked not to be named for his safety. “That’s why the ANA ... is letting everything go.”

In Jalalabad, a major trading hub on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, a swift surrender unfolded Sunday when the provincial governor allowed the Taliban to take over the city in return for sparing it from destruction. 

“I am happy that the Taliban were given power in Nangarhar to prevent theft and peacefully enter the ... districts without bloodshed,” tweeted Gov. Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, hours after the Taliban shadow governor for the province of Nangarhar took control.

Yet while many Afghan political leaders, from the president on down, have chosen capitulation, the question of how the Taliban will treat ordinary citizens looms large.

When the Taliban ruled in the 1990s, men were forced to pray five times a day and to grow their beards long. Similar measures, including forbidding smartphones and television, and closing and burning schools for girls, are already being instilled in parts of Afghanistan now under Taliban control.

“When the Taliban start taking these places, people don’t want to support them. But in fear, they don’t have any other option because they [Taliban] are terrorists,” said the Afghan official in Konar province. “They don’t have any mercy.”

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled the advancing Taliban, many seeking refuge in Kabul before it fell on Sunday. Others are desperately looking for ways to leave the country, knowing that the Taliban control the main highways and border crossings, making road travel increasingly precarious.

As options to leave are dwindling, some Afghans are going into hiding locally. In Jalalabad, for example, one large family bought a two-month supply of food, divided into groups, left their house, and scattered into the city to hide. A relative in the U.S. says the family fears Taliban retribution because some of its members served as interpreters for the U.S. military.

“They are afraid,” the relative says. “Many are young – in their 20s and teens – and they’ve never seen anything like this.”

Staff writers Scott Peterson and Ann Scott Tyson reported from Seattle. 

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