Taliban leader in Kabul; slow pace of evacuation aims to limit risk
Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar has arrived in the Afghan capital of Kabul for talks with militant commanders, former government leaders and religious scholars, an official of the Islamist group told Reuters on Saturday.
About 12,000 foreigners and Afghans working for embassies and international aid groups have been evacuated from Kabul airport since Taliban insurgents entered the capital a week ago, a NATO official said.
"The evacuation process is slow, as it is risky, for we don't want any form of clashes with Taliban members or civilians outside the airport," the NATO official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"We don't want to start a blame game regarding the evacuation plan."
The Taliban completed a lighting takeover of the country, walking into the capital Kabul last Sunday without firing a shot.
Since then, individual Afghans and international aid and advocacy groups have reported harsh retaliation against protests, and roundups of those who had formerly held government positions, criticised the Taliban or worked with Americans.
"We have heard of some cases of atrocities and crimes against civilians," said the Taliban official on condition of anonymity.
"If Talibs (members) are doing these law and order problems, they will be investigated," he said. "We can understand the panic, stress and anxiety. People think we will not be accountable, but that will not be the case."
Although the group has sought to present a more moderate face since its takeover, the Taliban ruled with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001, before being toppled by US-led forces for sheltering al Qaeda militants behind the September 11 attacks.
Former officials told harrowing tales of hiding from the Taliban in recent days as gunmen went from door to door. One family of 16 described running to the bathroom, lights off and children's mouths covered, in fear for their lives .
The Taliban official said that the group planned to ready a new model for governing Afghanistan within the next few weeks, with separate teams to tackle internal security and financial issues.
"Experts from the former government will be brought in for crisis management," he said.
The new governance structure would not be a democracy by Western definitions, but "it will protect everyone's rights," the official added.
During his Kabul visit, Baradar will meet militant commanders, former government leaders and policy makers, as well as religious scholars among others, the official said without elaborating.
Baradar, the chief of the Taliban's political office, was part of the group's negotiating team in the Qatar capital of Doha.
Reported to have been one of the most trusted commanders of the former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, Baradar was captured in 2010 by security forces in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi and released in 2018.
The chaos at Kabul airport, besieged by thousands of people desperate to flee the country, was not the responsibility of the Taliban, the official of the militant group said. "The West could have had a better plan to evacuate."
Gun-toting Taliban members around the airport have urged those without travel documents to go home. At least 12 people have been killed in and around the airport since Sunday, NATO and Taliban officials said.
As Western nations have struggled to hasten evacuations amid the chaos and reports of Taliban violence, President Joe Biden confronted criticism about the planning for the withdrawal of US troops and the Islamist militants' swift takeover.
"I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies," Biden told reporters after a speech from the White House on Friday. "As a matter of fact, the exact opposite ... we're acting with dispatch, we're acting, committing to what we said we would do."
He insisted every American who wanted to would be evacuated.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the situation outside Kabul airport "very dire and difficult", as several member nations pressed for evacuations to continue beyond a US deadline of Aug. 31.
Biden has not backed off that deadline, despite calls - internationally and at home from fellow Democrats as well as opposition Republicans - to keep troops in Afghanistan as long as necessary to bring home every American.
Biden said he could not predict the final outcome in Afghanistan, where the United States and allies have waged a 20-year war.
But he promised to work with other countries to set "harsh conditions" for any cooperation with, or recognition of, the Taliban, based on their human rights record.
"They're looking to gain some legitimacy, they're going to have to figure out how they're going to retain that country," he said.
"And there's going to be some harsh conditions, strong conditions we're going to apply that will depend on ... how well they treat women and girls, how they treat their citizens."