Evacuation effort in Kabul continues; Friday prayers go on

Evacuation effort in Kabul continues Friday prayers go on
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Faced with mounting criticism of its chaotic exit from Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies Friday stepped up evacuation efforts from the Afghan capital, Kabul, where thousands of people remained bunkered at the airport even as a semblance of normality returned to other parts of the city.

With bedlam at the airport a daily event since the Taliban’s takeover of the capital Sunday, President Biden was set to give an address on the still-precarious situation at 10 a.m. Pacific time, while U.S. and Taliban officials were reported to have discussed opening a safe passage through the crowds at the airport’s entrance.

Over the last five days, those with permission to leave have faced a gantlet of crushing crowds and edgy Taliban fighters using truncheons, sticks, whips, rifle butts and bullets to disperse people around the airport’s environs. Those able to shove their way to the airport tell of finding no one to receive them; Afghan diplomats outside the country field a constant stream of phone calls from their desperate compatriots back home asking for help.

U.S. officials say there are some 5,800 American troops securing the airport, with no plans to move beyond its perimeter to ease access for prospective passengers.

The White House said Friday that it has managed to evacuate some 9,000 people since Saturday, for a total of about 14,000 since July. That remains a far cry from the 70,000 people believed eligible and eager to leave the country for the U.S. under a special visa program for vulnerable Afghans.

Difficulties for Afghans in reaching the airport has meant that many of the departing flights have left with empty seats; one report said that a German military flight left with only seven passengers.

Away from the airport, there was the almost humdrum rhythm of a Friday, the first day of the weekend here.

At Pul-i-Khishti, the blue-domed mosque that is Kabul’s largest, street vendors were parked outside selling fruit and various wares as hundreds of people streamed into the main hall for Friday prayers. Uniformed security guards frisked those who entered but didn’t enforce a dress code.

Inside, an M-16-toting preacher stood at a dais, flanked by two guards in military fatigues and outfitted in what was possibly gear once used by the U.S.-backed Afghan forces. A hush fell upon the congregation as he approached a pair of microphones placed on a stand.

The preacher was Khalil Rahman Haqqani, a senior member of the Haqqani network — a notoriously ruthless Islamist organization and Taliban offshoot — whom Washington placed on its global terrorist list in 2011, offering a $5-million reward for information leading to his capture. Haqqani is reported to have been tasked with overseeing security in Kabul. Fittingly, his sermon emphasized what he said was a dawn of a new period of peace in the capital and the country.

“We have freed Afghanistan from Western imperialism and the infidels. Afghanistan will now be a peaceful and prosperous country, where there will be security, no corruption, and no theft,” he said, adding that all the country’s various ethnicities were “brothers.”

The upbeat tone was in line with guidance issued by the Taliban to imams around Afghanistan urging them to use their sermons to appeal for unity and to counter “negative propaganda” about the group. When Haqqani finished preaching, supplicants swarmed around him like a rock star.

Haqqani added that all who worked with the former government, even former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, were to be given amnesty.

That soft line has been an oft-repeated talking point of Taliban leaders in recent days. But a confidential security assessment prepared for the United Nations by the RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses — which was seen by the Los Angeles Times — spoke of the Taliban trying to hunt down some of its former adversaries, going so far as “arresting and/or threatening to kill or arrest family members of target individuals unless they surrender themselves to the Taliban.”

“The reports that we have been getting from multiple sources are that it’s not just rogue Taliban fighters seeking revenge, but that they’re hunting former people in the security services, Afghan special forces and police,” Christian Nellemann, who heads the group behind the report, said in an interview Friday.

“And some of this happened in the first hours of them entering Kabul. They established roadblocks, took control of some major buildings, and immediately started this.”

On Friday, the city continued to adjust to the startling new reality of life once again under the Taliban’s aegis, 20 years after the group was driven out of the city by a U.S.-led invading force.

In a quiet intersection outside the central downtown area, two boys stood in the middle of the street hawking oversized white Taliban flags. A brown military vehicle drove up, and Mullah Esmatullah Khadir, 30, from Musa Qala district in southern Helmand province, waved to one of the boys to sell him a flag.

The boy ran excitedly across the street. The mullah, wearing shiny leather loafers, jumped out of the vehicle, climbed onto the back and affixed the flag to the antenna. Then he grinned.

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