200 passengers to leave Kabul in first airlift since US pullout

Some 200 passengers, including US citizens, were set to leave Kabul airport on Thursday, on the first flight carrying foreigners out of the capital since a US-led evacuation ended on August 30.

The flight to Doha was set to depart as the Taliban cemented their power over Afghanistan, less than a month after they marched into Kabul and ousted former president Ashraf Ghani.

On Thursday afternoon, a Qatar Airways flight was being prepared to take out some 200 passengers from Kabul’s airport — the first since a mammoth, chaotic airlift of over 120,000 people ended with the US pullout.

It was not immediately clear who organised the flight, but footage broadcast by Al Jazeera TV showed families including women, children and elderly people waiting with suitcases at the airport.

“We are very appreciative of the Qataris,” one passenger told the channel, giving his nationality as Canadian.

Away from the airport, there was a noticeably stronger Taliban presence on the streets of Kabul as armed fighters — including special forces in military fatigues — stood guard on street corners and manned checkpoints, according to AFP journalists.

– Protest ban –

Most of the early Afghan evacuees were desperate to flee fearing Taliban reprisals for having worked with foreign powers during the 20-year US-led occupation.

The Taliban have pledged a more moderate brand of rule than in their notoriously oppressive 1996-2001 reign.

However, the Islamist hardliners have shown clear signs that they will not tolerate opposition. 

Earlier this week armed Taliban militants dispersed hundreds of protesters in cities across Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, Faizabad in the northeast and in Herat in the west, where two people were shot dead.

Late Wednesday, they moved to snuff out any further civil unrest, saying protests would need prior authorisation from the justice ministry, adding “for the time being” no demonstrations were allowed.

One protest organiser told AFP rallies in Kabul had been cancelled because of the overnight ban.

At the site of another planned protest in the city, there were no signs of a demonstration.

– Promises of inclusion –

A Taliban interim government, drawn exclusively from loyalist ranks, formally began work this week with established hardliners in all key posts and no women -– despite previous promises of an inclusive administration for all Afghans.

Tuesday night’s announcement of the cabinet was a key step in the Taliban’s consolidation of power, following a stunning military victory that saw them oust the US-backed administration on August 15.

All the top positions were handed to key leaders from the movement and in particular the Haqqani network — the most violent Taliban faction, known for devastating attacks. 

Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund — a senior minister during the notorious Taliban regime of 1996 to 2001 — was appointed interim prime minister.

Mullah Yaqoob, the son of the Taliban founder and late supreme leader Mullah Omar, was named defence minister, while the position of interior minister was given to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Haqqani network leader.

Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, who oversaw the signing of the US withdrawal agreement in 2020, was appointed deputy prime minister.

The dreaded Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — previously responsible for arresting and punishing people for failing to implement the movement’s restrictive interpretation of sharia — is being reinstated.

The Taliban face a monumental task in ruling Afghanistan, which is wracked with economic woes and security challenges — including from the Islamic State group’s local chapter.

– Legitimacy must be ‘earned’ –

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said any international legitimacy for the Taliban government would have to be “earned”, after leading a 20-nation virtual meeting on the Afghan crisis.

Qatar, the central intermediary between the Taliban and the international community in recent years, said the Taliban had demonstrated “pragmatism” of late.

Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country as the Taliban entered Kabul, apologised Wednesday to the Afghan people for how his rule ended.

And on Thursday Cricket Australia said it would cancel a historic maiden Test match against Afghanistan unless the Taliban backtracks on a reported ban on women playing sport.

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