Taliban militants attacked protesters Wednesday in Afghanistan who dared to take down their banner and replace it with the country’s flag, killing at least one person and fueling fears about how the insurgents would govern this fractious nation.
While the Taliban have insisted they will respect human rights, unlike during their previously draconian rule, the attack in Jalalabad came as many Afghans were hiding at home or trying to flee the country, fearful of abuses by the loosely controlled militant organization. Many people have expressed dread that the two-decade Western experiment to remake Afghanistan will not survive the resurgent Taliban, who took control of the country in a blitz that took just days.
Taliban leaders talked Wednesday with senior Afghan officials about a future government. In a potential complication to any effort to stabilize the country, the head of the country’s central bank warned that American sanctions over the Taliban’s designation as a terrorist organization threatened Afghanistan’s economy, which already is dangerously low on hard foreign currency.
One figure who was not at the talks in Kabul: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled as the Taliban closed in on the capital. The United Arab Emirates acknowledged Wednesday that the Gulf nation had taken him and his family in on humanitarian grounds.
In an early sign of protest to the Taliban’s rule, dozens gathered in the eastern city of Jalalabad and a nearby market town to raise the tricolor national flag, a day before Afghanistan’s Independence Day, which commemorates the 1919 treaty that ended British rule. They lowered the Taliban flag — a white banner with an Islamic inscription — that the militants have raised in the areas they captured.
Video footage later showed the Taliban firing into the air and attacking people with batons to disperse the crowd. Babrak Amirzada, a reporter for a local news agency, said the Taliban beat him and a TV cameraman from another agency.
A local health official said the violence killed at least one person and wounded six. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists. The Taliban did not acknowledge the protest or the violence.
It was a rare resistance to their rule. In the days since the Taliban seized Kabul on Sunday, the militants only faced one other protest by a few women in the capital.
There has been no armed opposition to the Taliban. But videos from the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance militias that allied with the U.S. during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, appear to show potential opposition figures gathering there. That area is in the only province that has not fallen to the Taliban.
Those figures include members of the deposed government — Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who asserted on Twitter that he is the country’s rightful president, and Defense Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi — as well as Ahmad Massoud, the son of the slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, Massoud asked for weapons and aid to fight the Taliban.
“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” he wrote. “The Taliban is not a problem for the Afghan people alone. Under Taliban control, Afghanistan will without doubt become ground zero of radical Islamist terrorism; plots against democracies will be hatched here once again.”
The Taliban, meanwhile, pressed ahead with their efforts to form an “inclusive, Islamic government.” They have been holding talks with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government. Mohammad Yusof Saha, a spokesman for Karzai, said preliminary meetings with Taliban officials would lead to eventual negotiations with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top Taliban political leader who just returned to the country from Qatar.
Karzai and Abdullah met Wednesday with Anas Haqqani, a senior leader in a powerful Taliban faction called the Haqqani Network. That network, once allied to the U.S. during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, was blamed for a series of devastating suicide attacks amid the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network, like the Taliban at large, faces U.S. sanctions.
On Wednesday, hundreds of people remained outside Kabul’s airport, already the scene of deadly chaos involving crowds trying to flee the country. The Taliban demanded to see documents before allowing the rare passenger inside. Many of the people outside did not appear to have passports, and each time the gate opened even an inch, dozens tried to push through. The Taliban fired occasional warning shots to disperse them.
One Afghan who formerly worked with the U.S. military said he was turned away by American troops even after the State Department told him to come for a flight, according to Sam Lerman, an Air Force veteran who is helping former colleagues leave the country. The Afghan was told he needed a green card, Lerman said.
“People are going to die” as a result of that confusion, Lerman said.
The Taliban have promised to maintain security, but residents say groups of armed men have been going door to door inquiring about Afghans who worked with the Americans or the deposed government. It’s unclear if the gunmen are Taliban or criminals posing as militants.
In theory, Ghani remains the president of Afghanistan, though many in the country blame him for the collapse of Afghan security forces.
Speaking late Wednesday in a video posted to Facebook, Ghani defended abandoning Kabul as the Taliban advanced, describing it as the only way to prevent bloodshed. He denied rumors that he left with millions of dollars.
“I was forced to leave Afghanistan with one set of traditional clothes, a vest and the sandals I was wearing,” Ghani said. He also said he supported the talks Abdullah and Karzai are conducting with the Taliban.
In a sign of the monetary difficulties any future Afghan government will face, the head of Afghanistan’s central bank said the country’s supply of physical U.S. dollars is “close to zero.” Afghanistan has some $9 billion in reserves, Ajmal Ahmady tweeted, but most is held outside the country, with some $7 billion held in U.S. Federal Reserve bonds, assets and gold.
Ahmady said the country did not receive a planned cash shipment amid the Taliban offensive.
“The next shipment never arrived,” he wrote. “Seems like our partners had good intelligence as to what was going to happen.”
A U.S. official confirmed that the Treasury Department has frozen the Afghan government’s accounts in the United States and halted direct assistance payments to the government. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly.
Ahmady said the lack of U.S. dollars will likely lead to a depreciation of the local currency, the afghani, hurting the country’s poor.
The “Taliban won militarily — but now have to govern,” he wrote. “It is not easy.”