Taliban co-founder Baradar in Kabul for talks to set up govt
Other senior Taliban leaders seen in the capital in recent days include Khalil Haqqani -- one of America's most wanted terrorists with a $5 million bounty on his head.
Pro-Taliban social media feeds showed Haqqani meeting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- a former bitter rival during the brutal civil war of the early 1990s, but still influential in Afghan politics.
Within hours of his return, the group announced its rule would be "different" this time.
The Taliban have said they want this iteration of their government to be "inclusive", but have given few details of who it would include.
Arrested in Pakistan in 2010, Baradar was in custody until pressure from the United States saw him freed in 2018 and relocated to Qatar.
He was appointed head of the Taliban's political office in Doha, where he oversaw the signing of the agreement that led to the agreement for US forces to withdraw and end their 20-year campaign.
The Taliban scotched any hopes of a negotiated peace deal with the Afghan government by overrunning the country in under two weeks -- a lightning offensive that ended with them taking Kabul unopposed last Sunday.
Another key leader of the so-called Haqqani network -- Anas Haqqani -- was also in the capital and had met former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who led the overall peace process for the previous administration.
Evacuation scramble continues
The Taliban's senior leadership was gathering in the Afghan capital Saturday to map out a future "inclusive" government, as desperation deepened for thousands still scrambling to leave the country via a chaotic evacuation operation.
Six days after the hardline Islamist movement swept to power, the flow of people trying to flee continued to overwhelm the international community.
Roads leading to Kabul airport were choked with traffic, while families hoping for a miracle escape crowded between the barbed-wire surrounds of an unofficial no man's land separating the Taliban from US troops and remnants of an Afghan special forces brigade helping them.
Video of a US soldier lifting a baby over a wall at Kabul's airport offered the latest imagery of the utter despair, following horror footage of people hanging onto the outside of departing planes.
"Please, please, please help me... where should I go, what should I do," one man, who said he worked for the US embassy in the mid-2000s, wrote on a WhatsApp group set up for people to share information on how to get out.
"I have tried to get there (to the airport) for some days, but I cannot reach. Please save me."
Thousands of US soldiers are at the airport trying to shepherd foreigners and Afghans onto flights, but President Joe Biden admitted the troop presence offered no guarantees of safe passage.
"This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history," Biden said in a televised address.
"I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or... that it will be without risk of loss."
- Evacuation deadline -
US military helicopters were deployed to rescue more than 150 Americans unable to reach the airport on Friday morning, an official in Washington said.
It was the first report of US forces going beyond the airport to help people seeking evacuation.
A German civilian was also shot and wounded on his way to the airport, a government spokeswoman in Berlin said on Friday.
Biden had set a deadline of August 31 to completely withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, but he flagged this could be extended to continue the airlifts.
About 13,000 people have left on American military aircraft, the White House said. Thousands of others have fled on other foreign military flights.
- US diminished -
The crisis has cast another shadow over the United States' status as a global superpower and its ability to help allies around the world.
Biden and other US allies were stunned at how quickly the Taliban were able to rout government forces, who surrendered en masse.
The Taliban have promised "positively different" rule from their 1996-2001 stint in power, which was infamous for an ultra-fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.
Women were excluded from public life, girls banned from school and people stoned to death for adultery.
They have vowed not to seek revenge against their opponents, promising a general amnesty for anyone who worked with the US-backed government.
But an intelligence document for the United Nations said militants were going door-to-door hunting down former government officials and those who worked with US and NATO forces.
According to the confidential document by the UN's threat assessment consultants seen by AFP, militants were also screening people on the way to Kabul airport.
The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that the Taliban had shot dead the relative of one of its journalists while searching for the editor.
- Collective pride -
At the first Friday prayers since the Taliban's return to power, imams and guest speakers celebrated the defeat of the United States.
At one mosque in Kabul, gunmen flanked a scholar as he delivered a fiery speech in which he recounted how Afghans had beaten the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States on the battlefield.
"Afghans have once again shown collective pride," he said.
At another mosque, the imam referenced the tragic scenes at the airport, describing those trying to flee as not having strong enough religious convictions.
"Those with weak faith are running after or hanging from American planes," he said.
"They should stay and build their country."