The Taliban vowed Tuesday to respect women's rights, forgive those who resisted them and ensure a secure Afghanistan as part of a publicity blitz aimed at convincing world powers and a fearful population that they have changed.
Following a lightning offensive across Afghanistan that saw many cities fall to the insurgents without a fight, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they imposed a brutal rule in the late 1990s. But many Afghans remain skeptical — and thousands raced to the airport on Monday, desperate to flee the country.
Older generations remember the Taliban's ultraconservative Islamic views, which included severe restrictions on women as well as public stonings and amputations before they were ousted by the US-led invasion following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
As others have in recent days, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid addressed these concerns head on in his first news conference Tuesday.
Mujahid, who had been a shadowy figure for years, promised the Taliban would honour women's rights, but within the norms of Islamic law, though he gave few details. He said the group wanted private media to “remain independent,” but stressed journalists “should not work against national values.”
And he promised the insurgents would secure Afghanistan — but seek no revenge against those who worked with the former government or with foreign governments or forces.
“We assure you that nobody will go to their doors to ask why they helped,” he said.
Earlier, Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban's cultural commission, made similar promises, saying the Taliban would extend an “amnesty” without giving details and encouraging women to join the government.
The capital of Kabul remained quiet for another day as the Taliban patrolled its streets and many residents stayed home, fearful after the insurgents' takeover saw prisons emptied and armories looted. Many women have expressed dread that the two-decade Western experiment to expand their rights and remake Afghanistan would not survive the resurgent Taliban.
Germany, meanwhile, halted development aid to Afghanistan over the Taliban takeover. Such aid is a crucial source of funding for the country — and the Taliban's efforts to project a milder version of themselves may be aimed at ensuring that money continues to flow.
While the Taliban pledged not to go after their enemies, there are reports that fighters have lists of people who cooperated with the government and are seeking them out.
A broadcaster in Afghanistan said she was hiding at a relative's house, too frightened to return home much less return to work following reports that the insurgents are also looking for journalists. She said she and other women didn't believe the Taliban had changed their ways. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.
Samangani addressed the concerns of women, saying a Taliban were ready to "provide women with environment to work and study, and the presence of women in different (government) structures according to Islamic law and in accordance with our cultural values.”
That would be a marked departure from the last time the Taliban were in power, when women were largely confined to their homes.
In another sign of the Taliban's efforts to portray a new image, a female television anchor on the private broadcaster Tolo interviewed a Taliban official on camera Tuesday in a studio — an interaction that once would have been unthinkable. Meanwhile, women in hijabs demonstrated briefly in Kabul, holding signs demanding the Taliban not “eliminate women” from public life.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, noted both the Taliban's vows and the fears of everyday Afghans.
“Such promises will need to be honored, and for the time being — again understandably, given past history — these declarations have been greeted with some skepticism,” he said in a statement. “There have been many hard-won advances in human rights over the past two decades. The rights of all Afghans must be defended.”
Germany, meanwhile, suspended development aid to Afghanistan, estimated at 250 million euros ($294 million) for 2021. Other funding separately goes to security services and humanitarian aid. Sweden indicated it would slow aid to the country, but Britain committed to an increase.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said humanitarian aid could rise by 10%. He said the aid budget would be reconfigured for development and humanitarian purposes and that the Taliban would not get any money previously earmarked for security.
Meanwhile, Kabul's international airport, the only way out for many, reopened to military evacuation flights under the watch of American troops.
All flights were suspended on Monday when thousands of people rushed the airport. In shocking scenes captured on video, some clung to a plane as it took off and then fell to their deaths. At least seven people died in chaos at the airport, US officials said.
By late Tuesday, the Taliban entered the civilian half of the airport, firing into the air to drive out around 500 people there, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to brief journalists.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said US commanders at the airport are communicating with Taliban leaders to keep the airlift going, adding that there have been no hostile actions by the Taliban.
Still, there were indications that the situation remained tenuous. The US Embassy in Kabul, now operating from the airport, urged Americans to register online for evacuations but not come to the airport before being contacted.
The German Foreign Ministry said a first German military transport plane landed in Kabul, but it took off with only seven people on board due to continued chaos. Another left later with 125 people.
Across Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross said thousands had been wounded in fighting as the Taliban swept across the country in recent days, ahead of the planned withdrawal of the last American troops at the end of the month.
As US President Joe Biden did, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg blamed the swift collapse of the country on a failure of Afghan leadership. But he added that the alliance must also uncover flaws in its effort to train the Afghan military.
Talks continued Tuesday between the Taliban and several Afghan government officials, including former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who once headed the country's negotiating council.
Discussions focused on how a Taliban-dominated government would operate given the changes in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, rather than just dividing up who controlled what ministries, officials with knowledge of the negotiations said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential details of the talks.
A top Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrived in Kandahar on Tuesday night from Qatar. His arrival may signal a deal is close at hand.
But in a possible complication, the vice president of the ousted government claimed on Twitter Tuesday that he was the country's “legitimate” caretaker president. Amrullah Saleh said, under the constitution, he should be in charge because President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country.