The Taliban was facing growing signs of dissent in several cities as Afghans carried the national flag in a second day of protests, sparking a crackdown that resulted in reports of at least two deaths.
Protesters marched in Kabul and other cities on Thursday to celebrate Afghanistan's Independence Day, which commemorates the 1919 war that ended British control of the country.
Some carried Afghanistan’s black, red and green flag in an apparent show of defiance to the Taliban, which flies a white flag emblazoned with an Islamic oath.
At least two people were killed in the eastern city of Asadabad when the Taliban fired on the crowd and a Taliban fighter was stabbed, according to Al Jazeera. Reuters reported that it wasn’t clear if the deaths were caused by shooting or a stampede.
The protests marked the strongest displays of popular opposition to the Islamists since they swept into Kabul uncontested on Sunday on the heels of withdrawing US troops.
Many cities in Afghanistan maintained an uneasy calm in the first days after the Taliban took over as residents – particularly professional women and those associated with the former government or military – stayed at home in fear of retribution.
A protest in the city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, at which at least three people were killed, marked one of the first public displays of dissent. Demonstrations followed in several more cities.
The Taliban, which used brutal violence to suppress women’s rights and punish dissenters when it ruled in the 1990s, has so far sought to present a more moderate image. A spokesman for the group has said it would offer amnesty to opponents and that women’s rights will be protected within the limits of Islamic law.
But observers are sceptical and some of those overtures have been contradicted by reports of beatings and killings at the hands of the victorious militants.
Taliban members are intensifying a search for people who they believe worked with US and Nato forces, including among the crowds of Afghans outside Kabul's airport, and have threatened to kill or arrest their family members if they cannot find them, according to a confidential UN document.
Social media videos showed Taliban fighters on Thursday firing into the air to disperse crowds around Kabul airport, which has been the scene of continued chaos as many Afghans try to escape the country.
The Pentagon said on Thursday that more than 5,200 US troops were now on the ground to secure the site and help evacuate US nationals and Afghan allies. The US military has capacity to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people a day, it said, but flew out only 2,000 people yesterday. Around 7,000 people have been airlifted so far. It added that US attack aircraft had been conducting “overwatch” flights above Kabul as a security measure.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday acknowledged that the rapid US withdrawal had resulted in "chaos ensuing" but argued it was inevitable.
He defended his handling of the crisis and decision to press ahead with the withdrawal, even after it became clear that the Taliban would swiftly return to power.
The Islamists’ remaining opponents will hope that Wednesday and Thursday’s protests could signal the start of more sustained resistance.
The Taliban is yet to conquer Panjshir, a mountainous province that has long been a haven for guerrilla fighters. Ahmad Massoud, the son of a famous anti-Taliban warlord, has said he is trying to gather resistance fighters at his base in the province.
Amrullah Saleh, the deposed vice-president who met Mr Massoud this week and declared himself caretaker president, wrote on Twitter that he "salute[s] those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation and the country".
An Afghan national soccer team player died in a fall from a US plane at Kabul airport on Monday, the Afghan news agency Ariana said on Thursday.
Ariana said Zaki Anwari fell from a USAF Boeing C-17 and that the death had been confirmed by the General Directorate for Sport. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021/Reuters/New York Times