Taliban close to forming new government in Afghanistan

Qatar, Turkey work with Taliban in race to reopen Kabul airport: Taliban spokesman says China to keep embassy in Afghanistan, increase aid: Biden visits hospital treating US troops wounded in Afghanistan: UN resumes humanitarian flights

By: AFP      Published: 07:43 AM, 3 Sep, 2021
Taliban close to forming new government in Afghanistan
Staff carry flowers from a motorcade as US President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden visit troops wounded in Afghanistan at Walter Reed Military Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland.–AFP

The Taliban were expected to form a government as early as Friday with the new regime under intense international scrutiny over its vow to rule Afghanistan with greater tolerance, especially on women's rights.

The announcement of a new administration could be made after Friday afternoon prayers, two Taliban sources told AFP, as the Islamists shift gears from insurgent group to governing power, days after the United States fully withdrew its troops and ended two decades of war.

While the West has adopted a wait-and-see approach to the Taliban, there were some signs of engagement with the new leaders gathering pace.

The United Nations said it had restarted humanitarian flights to parts of the country, linking the Pakistani capital Islamabad with Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and Kandahar in the south.

A Taliban spokesman tweeted early Friday that China's foreign ministry had promised to keep its embassy in Afghanistan open and to "beef up" relations and humanitarian assistance.

Western Union and Moneygram said they were resuming money transfers, which many Afghans rely on from relatives abroad to survive, and Qatar said it was working to reopen the airport in Kabul -- a lifeline for aid.

The British and Italian foreign ministers were meanwhile both headed to Afghanistan's neighbours in the coming days to discuss the plight of refugees still hoping to escape the Taliban.

The new rulers have pledged to be more accommodating than during their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, which also came after years of conflict -- first the Soviet invasion of 1979, and then a bloody civil war.

That first regime was notorious for its brutal and violent interpretation of Islamic law, and its treatment of women, who were forced behind closed doors, banned from school and work and denied freedom of movement.

Now, all eyes are on whether the Taliban can deliver a cabinet capable of managing a war-wracked economy and honour the movement's pledges of a more "inclusive" government.

- 'We are not afraid' -

Speculation is rife about the makeup of a new government, although a senior official said this week that women were unlikely to be included.

In the western city of Herat, some 50 women took to the streets Thursday in a rare, defiant protest for the right to work and over the lack of female participation in the new government.

"It is our right to have education, work and security," the demonstrators chanted in unison, said an AFP journalist who witnessed the protest. "We are not afraid, we are united," they added.

Herat is a relatively cosmopolitan city on the ancient silk road near the Iranian border. It is one of the more prosperous in Afghanistan, and girls have already returned to school there.

One of the organisers of the protest, Basira Taheri, told AFP she wanted the Taliban to include women in the new cabinet.

"We want the Taliban to hold consultations with us," Taheri said. "We don't see any women in their gatherings and meetings."

Among the 122,000 people who fled Afghanistan in a frenzied US-led airlift that ended on Monday was the first female Afghan journalist to interview a Taliban official live on television.

Speaking to AFP in Qatar, the former anchor for the Tolo News media group said women in Afghanistan were "in a very bad situation".

"I want to say to the international community -- please do anything (you can) for Afghan women," Beheshta Arghand said.

- 'Business below zero' -

Women's rights were not the only major concern in the lead-up to the Taliban's announcement of a new government.

In Kabul, residents voiced worry over the country's long-running economic difficulties, now seriously compounded by the militant movement's takeover.

"With the arrival of the Taliban, it's right to say that there is security, but business has gone down below zero," Karim Jan, an electronic goods shop owner, told AFP.

The United Nations warned earlier this week of a looming "humanitarian catastrophe" in Afghanistan, as it called for those still wanting to flee the new regime to be given a way out.

Italy's foreign minister was due to visit Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Qatar and Pakistan from Friday to assist Afghan refugees, while his British counterpart was to head to the region next week.

Qatar's foreign minister said on Thursday the Gulf state was working with the Taliban to reopen Kabul's airport as soon as possible.

Turkey said it was also evaluating proposals from the Taliban and others for a role in running the airport.

Qatar, Turkey work to reopen Kabul airport

Qatar said Thursday it is working with the Taliban to quickly reopen Kabul's airport, whose closure since the departure of US troops could pose major strategic and humanitarian challenges.

A jet from the Gulf country was the first foreign aircraft to land in the Afghan capital on Wednesday since frenzied evacuations ended a day earlier with the American withdrawal.

A flight from Doha then landed in Kabul on Thursday, carrying experts who will examine security and operational aspects pertaining to the airport, according to a source close to the matter.

Doha, a major transit point for Afghan refugees, said it was working hard to swiftly resume operations.

"We remain hopeful that we will be able to operate it as soon as possible," said Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, whose country has close contacts with the Taliban which assumed control of Kabul on August 15. 

"It's very important... that the Taliban demonstrate their commitment to provide safe passage and freedom of movement for the people of Afghanistan," said Sheikh Mohammed.

"Hopefully in the next few days we will hear some good news," he added.

Sheikh Mohammed said discussions about reopening the airport also included Turkey, which he hoped could provide technical assistance.

Turkey said Thursday it was "evaluating" proposals from the Taliban and others on the airport, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu saying security "inside and outside" the facility remained the top priority. 

An Afghan civil aviation official told Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera that Kabul will begin airport operations "soon".

"Domestic flights will begin tomorrow (Friday), as for international, it'll take time," he said.

- Not in working condition -

The United States, which seized the airport in the final weeks of its 20-year military mission to fly out tens of thousands of people, said it supported Qatari and Turkish efforts to restore the airport.

The airport had previously been operated through contractors from third countries who are no longer able to do so, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in Washington.

"Before you can have a functioning airport," Price told reporters, "you have to have an element or an entity that is capable of running the airport."

Commercial airliners or charters also need security assurances and an airport that is no longer "in a state of profound disrepair," Price said.

A suicide bombing on August 26 claimed by the Islamic State extremist group -- an opponent of the Taliban regime -- killed more than 100 Afghans and 13 US soldiers as vast crowds gathered outside to fly out of the country.

The airport already presented challenges as it has a single runway. It is only five kilometres (three miles) from downtown Kabul, forcing planes to go into a holding pattern over the city if they cannot land immediately.

A working government is vital both for bringing in humanitarian supplies, which are badly needed, and for bringing out more people who fear the Taliban.

On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country has evacuated some 17,000 British and Afghan nationals since April and reiterated that those left behind -- including those most at risk -- can travel to the UK. 

"That's why we watch with great interest what may be possible at Kabul airport," he said.

The Taliban are returning to power 20 years after their five-year government was toppled by US-led troops for harbouring Al-Qaeda which carried out the September 11 attacks.

After 20 years as insurgents, the Taliban now have the massive task of getting the country and its infrastructure up and running.

Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, has in recent months hosted a flurry of talks between the US, Taliban and the former Afghan government.

China to keep embassy, increase aid

A Taliban spokesman said Friday that China has promised to keep its embassy in Afghanistan open and to increase humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged country. 

Abdul Salam Hanafi, a member of the Islamist group's political office in Doha, Qatar, "held a phone conversation with Wu Jianghao, Deputy Foreign Minister of the People's Republic of China," spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted.

"The Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister said that they would maintain their embassy in Kabul, adding our relations would beef up as compared to the past. Afghanistan can play an important role in security and development of the region," he said.

"China will also continue and increase its humanitarian assistance especially for treatment of covid-19," the spokesman continued.

There was no immediate confirmation from Beijing. 

Much of the world has adopted a wait-and-see approach to engagement with the Taliban as they shift gears from Islamist insurgent group to governing power. But China has repeatedly slammed what it sees as a hasty and ill-planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States, and has said it is ready to deepen "friendly and cooperative" relations with the Taliban following their takeover.

China's embassy in Kabul remains operational, although Beijing began evacuating Chinese citizens from the country months ago as security deteriorated.

But Beijing has not yet recognised the Taliban as the de facto government, and is wary of the militant group providing support to Muslim-minority Uyghur separatists looking to infiltrate its sensitive border region of Xinjiang.

For Beijing, a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul would pave the way for an expansion of its overseas infrastructure drive, analysts say.

The Taliban, meanwhile, may consider China a crucial source of investment and economic support.

Chinese companies have also been eyeing Afghanistan's vast copper and lithium mines, but experts say the perilous security situation means any immediate commodities rush by investors is unlikely.

Biden visits troops wounded in Afghanistan

US President Joe Biden and his wife on Thursday visited a Maryland hospital treating troops wounded in Afghanistan, four days after the US military completed its withdrawal from the country.

"Tonight, the President and First Lady are visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center," the White House said.

Biden spent a little under two hours at the hospital, but no further details were provided by the administration on the visit, including whether the president met with service members.

The military hospital, located in a northwest suburb of Washington, is treating, among others, a dozen US service members wounded in an August 26 attack on the Kabul airport during the evacuation of foreign personnel and Afghan allies, US media reported.

On Sunday, Biden and his wife Jill paid tribute to the 13 US service members killed in the attack, as their remains were returned to the United States at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Claimed by the Islamic State's regional arm IS-Khorasan, the suicide attack killed over 100 people, making it one of the deadliest bombings for civilians in Kabul in recent years, and leading to the worst single-day death toll for the US military in Afghanistan since 2011.