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Even as the Taliban took their first steps to create a functioning government, they faced the first street protests on Wednesday against their takeover of Afghanistan, with demonstrations in at least two cities.
A public display of dissent in the northeastern city of Jalalabad was met by an overwhelming use of force. Taliban soldiers fired into the crowd and beat protesters and journalists.
The Taliban had taken control of the city, a commercial hub east of Kabul near the main border crossing with Pakistan, four days earlier without much of a fight after a deal was negotiated with local leaders.
This week, the Taliban have been out in large numbers, patrolling the city in pickup trucks seized from the now defunct police force.
Despite the risks, hundreds of protesters marched through the main shopping street, whistling, shouting and bearing large flags of the Afghan Republic. Taliban fighters fired in the air to break up the crowd, but the protesters did not disperse, video aired by local news media outlets showed.
When that failed, the fighters resorted to violence. It was unclear how many people were injured or whether anyone was killed.
The demonstration and the response threatened to undermine efforts by the Taliban leadership to present themselves as responsible stewards of the government.
In Khost, in the southeastern part of the country, there were also demonstrations, with dramatic photos and video showing hundreds of people taking to the streets.
The outpouring of public anger came as the Taliban prepared to offer details on the shape of their government, naming ministers and filling key positions.
“We don’t want Afghanistan to be a battlefield anymore,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s longtime chief spokesman, said in a news conference on Tuesday. “From today onward, war is over.”
While many were skeptical of those assurances, in Kabul the rhythms of daily life started to return — but they were in many ways circumscribed.
There were noticeably fewer women on the streets. Some of those who ventured out did not cover up in the traditional burqa, the full-length shroud that covers the face that were required the last time the Taliban ruled. At homes and businesses, a knock on the door could stir fear.
It remains to be seen whether the pragmatic needs of a nation of 38 million will continue to temper the ideological fanaticism that defined the group’s rule from 1996 to 2001. But the country the Taliban now control is vastly changed from two decades ago.
The progress of women — from the millions of girls in school and women in critical roles in civil society — is the most visible example. But years of Western investment in the country have also helped rebuild a nation that was in a state of ruin when the Taliban first emerged.
The protests offered early signs that many Afghans will not simply accept Taliban rule.
The public has a certain expectation that basic needs will be met, and the Afghan government’s failure to meet those needs helped fuel support for the Taliban. That allowed them to sweep across the country swiftly — often not by military force, but by negotiation with frustrated local leaders.
On Wednesday, at a riverside market in Kabul, Jawed was selling apples. Born the year the Taliban were ousted from power, he was not old enough to remember their brutal reign.
His concern this week was getting supplies of fruit from Pakistan. That was now easier, he said.
“The roads are clear now, they are quiet,” said Jawed, who goes by one name. For now, the Taliban meant more order in the traffic, and wholesale prices had dropped. But business was not better.
“The people are afraid right now — they’re not buying,” he said. “But at least it is better than yesterday. Things will slowly improve. The mullahs have arrived.”
The arrival of the Taliban mullahs — a reference to group’s religious leaders — also set off widespread fear.
Tens of thousands are still trying to escape. People lined up early at the banks, worried that there wouldn’t be money to feed their families. And the deployment of soldiers at checkpoints across Kabul made it clear that Taliban have a monopoly on the use of force and would decide how and when to use it.
During the frenzied first 48 hours after the collapse of the Afghan government, the desperate scenes at Kabul’s international airport drew parallels to the fall of Saigon.
Now, even though the airport is under the control of the U.S. military and evacuation flights have been stepped up, tens of thousands of Afghans are still struggling to find a way to escape Taliban rule.
And the American experience in Vietnam is being invoked again — as an illustration of how much more the United States could be doing if it had the political will and international support that followed the American exit from Vietnam.
After the war in Vietnam, a bipartisan consensus and collective sense of moral responsibility helped provide the framework for Operation New Life, which swiftly evacuated 130,000 vulnerable, mainly Vietnamese, people to a makeshift refugee camp on the island of Guam. From there, they were processed and moved to temporary migration centers across the United States.
Over the course of years of sustained efforts, 1.4 million Vietnamese people eventually settled in the country.
Now, the United States is trying to provide safety for a far smaller number, and has struggled in that effort.
Pentagon officials said on Tuesday that the pace of the current flights had quickened after more American troops arrived to secure the Kabul airport, with military planes and a smaller number of commercial flights operating
Seven C-17 planes airlifted 700 to 800 passengers, including 165 American citizens and an undisclosed number of people from other countries and Afghans who had worked with the U.S. government and NATO forces, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told a news conference.
General Taylor said that the evacuation effort could grow to include 5,000 to 9,000 passengers departing per day from the airport. But tens of thousands are believed to want safe passage out of Afghanistan immediately, including many who worked alongside U.S. and allied forces as interpreters during the war and fear Taliban reprisals.
More than 15,000 such Afghans, plus family members, have been resettled in the United States under special immigrant visas. At least 18,000 more have applications pending, and that number is expected to rise given the deteriorating situation.
There are important parallels between the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the current situation, with implications for addressing current humanitarian needs,” said Alexander Betts, a professor of forced migration and international affairs at the University of Oxford.
“The parallels should be inspiring,” he said, “and show that with political will and international leadership, large-scale resettlement is possible.”
But he said there was now unlikely to be the same degree of political support for admitting large numbers of refugees.
“The politics of refugee assistance is also very different in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, including public concerns relating to security and refugees from predominantly Muslim countries,” he said.
The process in Afghanistan has been stymied by politics, bureaucracy and the threat posed by the Taliban.
Betsy Fisher, the director of strategy at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said that her group had clients who had applied for refugee status 10 years ago and were still waiting.
“Some,” she said, “have applied in the last few weeks out of concern for their lives.”
The Biden administration has set a deadline to end the evacuation mission by Aug. 31, which gives little time for these lengthy visa applications to be processed.
It also remained unclear whether people eligible to get on a flight could make it to Kabul’s airport. General Taylor said that the Taliban were not impeding the evacuation effort inside the airport, but many Kabul residents said that Taliban fighters were present along the road to the airport, making it difficult for civilians to reach it, and in at least one case were seen beating people as they approached.
One man, his family in tow, found himself pleading on Tuesday evening to pass by Taliban fighters at a checkpoint near the French Embassy.
“They have called me they are going to take me and my family out of the country,” he said, referring to the French diplomats. “Please let me through.”
His entreaties earned him no sympathy from the young fighters. No one was getting through, they said. He should go home.
As the U.S. military steps up air evacuations from Kabul, Afghanistan, the Air Force has acknowledged that human body parts were found in the wheel well of an American military cargo plane that took flight amid chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport this week.
Air Force officials have not said how many people died in the episode, which occurred on Monday, but said on Tuesday that the service was investigating “the loss of civilian lives” as a crowd of Afghans, desperate to escape the country after their government fell to the Taliban, climbed onto the plane’s wings and fell from the sky after it took off.
Harrowing video of the episode, recorded by the Afghan news media, has circulated around the world, instantly making the horrific scene — of American military might flying away as Afghans hung on against all hope — a symbol of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan.
“We are all contending with a human cost to these developments,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said at a briefing on Tuesday.
American pilots and troops had to make on-the-spot decisions during panic at the airport on Sunday and Monday. Another C-17 transport plane left Kabul late Sunday with 640 people crowded onboard, more than double the planned number, military officials said. The pilots determined that the immense aircraft could handle the load, officials said. That plane landed safely at its destination.
But the people who tried the next day on a different C-17 were not so fortunate. Early Monday, the Air Force plane — call sign REACH885 — descended onto the runway. Minutes after the plane touched down, rolled to a stop and lowered its rear ramp, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Afghans, rushed forward as the small crew watched in alarm.
The crew members feared for their safety, jumped back up into the plane and pulled up the loading ramp, officials said. Some Afghans had climbed aboard the plane’s wings and, unbeknown to the crew, officials said, into the wheel well into which the landing gear would fold after takeoff.
The crew contacted air traffic control, operated by U.S. military personnel, and the plane was cleared for takeoff after spending only minutes on the ground.
Then, the pilot and co-pilot realized that the landing gear would not fully retract. They sent a crew member down to peer through a small porthole that allows them to view potential problems in the wheel well while aloft.
It was then that the crew saw the remains of an undetermined number of Afghans who had stowed away in the wheel well — apparently crushed by the landing gear.
The Taliban’s top leaders have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. They are now emerging from obscurity after a 20-year battle, but little is known about them or how they plan to govern.
As they take charge of Afghanistan’s government and a nation of 38 million people, the Taliban’s leaders have tried to signal that they are more worldly and tolerant than their predecessors in the 1990s, willing to work with women and urging people to get back to their jobs without fear of reprisals.
But the question remains: Have they really cast off an extremist ideology that carried them through two decades of war, or is this all a ruse designed to win global approval? What is known about the movement’s leaders yields some clues.
Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, supreme leader
An Islamic legal scholar, he is described as a spiritual guide for the movement and has long been a proponent of suicide bombing. His son trained to be a suicide bomber, and at 23 blew himself up in an attack in Helmand Province. That raised Mr. Akhundzada’s profile in the movement, said Carter Malkasian, the author of “The American War in Afghanistan.”
When the previous Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2016, Mr. Akhundzada emerged as a compromise candidate. “They needed somebody more consensual, somebody more able to keep the different factions together,” said a leading scholar of the Taliban, Antonio Giustozzi.
Known as a pragmatist, Mr. Akhundzada overruled the group’s political leaders and allowed the military wing to step up attacks on Afghan cities, Mr. Giustozzi said.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader
The son of a celebrated mujahedeen figure who oversees a sprawling web of fighters and religious schools from a base in Pakistan, Mr. Haqqani, 48, has led much of the Taliban’s recent military efforts.
His Haqqani network, known for its close ties to the Pakistani intelligence service, was the most dogged opponent of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. It was responsible for hostage-taking of Americans, complex suicide attacks and targeted assassinations.
Mr. Haqqani and his network also have some of the strongest and longest-running ties to Al Qaeda, including helping Osama bin Laden escape from his headquarters in Tora Bora after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
His younger brother, Anas Haqqani, has been part of peace negotiations in Doha and was in Kabul on Wednesday for meetings with former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the Afghan delegation to peace talks. He was accompanied by the speaker of Afghanistan’s upper house of Parliament.
Abdul Gani Baradar, political deputy
One of the movement’s early joiners, Mr. Baradar served as principal deputy to the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar.
Mr. Baradar led the movement’s military operations until his arrest by Pakistan, under U.S. pressure, in 2010. Under his leadership, the units were notable for their skillful use of guerrilla tactics against British and U.S. forces.
After three years in a Pakistani prison and several more under house arrest, he was released in 2019, under more U.S. pressure, to help negotiate the peace deal reached with the Trump administration in 2020.
In the course of the negotiations, he developed a “warm” relationship with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to the talks, according to Mr. Malkasian.
Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, military leader
The son of Mullah Omar, Mr. Yaqoub has gained importance for his work with the Taliban’s military forces, though he is not expected to challenge Mr. Haqqani for the No. 2 spot in the hierarchy.
He is considered less dogmatic than his father, and overcame a challenge from a rival for leadership of the Taliban’s military wing.
A bipartisan group of 44 lawmakers has urged President Biden to extend the administration’s Aug. 31 deadline for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and to “stay as long as is necessary” for American citizens, allies and vulnerable Afghans to safely leave the country.
In an open letter, the lawmakers, led by Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a veteran of the Obama administration, on Tuesday urged Mr. Biden to allow people with Special Immigrant Visas, as well as “vulnerable Afghans slated for evacuation” to remain at Kabul’s international airport “for as long as necessary until their turn comes to get onto a plane, so that they are not forced to hide in Kabul and to brave Taliban checkpoints later.”
The letter said it would be “unconscionable and devastating to our credibility to leave our allies behind, given the commitments we have made.” It said Mr. Biden had no reason to consider himself bound by any commitment to the Taliban, “who have never fully lived up to their part of the bargains they struck with us.”
Mr. Biden has authorized 6,000 troops to be deployed to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation of Afghan allies and U.S. citizens. Thousands of people have been thronging the airport trying to get out of the country, including many who worked for the U.S.-backed Afghan government or collaborated with American forces during the 20-year conflict. A Taliban spokesman said the group would not take reprisals against its former enemies, but fear is running high.
Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, would not commit to extending the administration’s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for the current mission.
Pressed at a White House press briefing on Tuesday about whether American troops would remain in the country until everyone is evacuated, Mr. Sullivan said the administration was “working day by day to get as many people out, so I’m not going to speculate on the timetable question.”
For now, tens of thousands of Afghan allies remain in limbo.
Defending his administration’s response, Mr. Biden said on Monday that “some of the Afghans did not want to leave early,” and that the Afghan government had “discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a ‘crisis of confidence.’”
Mr. Malinowski said in an interview that that was only partly true.
“There were plenty of Afghans who want to stay and do what they can for their country,” he said. “But it was also true that there were many people trying to get out.”
The previous Taliban rule in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, was a bleak period for Afghan women, who were barred from working outside the home or leaving the house without a male guardian. The Taliban eliminated schooling for girls and publicly flogged people who violated the group’s morality code.
The question now is whether the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law will be as draconian as when the group last held power.
Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different this time. In a news conference in Kabul on Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman said that women would be allowed to work and study. Another Taliban official said that women should participate in government.
“We assure that there will be no violence against women,” the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said. “No prejudice against women will be allowed, but the Islamic values are our framework.” Pressed for details, he said only that women could participate in society “within the bounds of Islamic law.”
But there are scattered signs that, at least in some areas, the Taliban have begun to reimpose the old order.
Women in some provinces have been told not to leave home without a male relative escorting them. In Herat, in western Afghanistan, Taliban gunmen guarded the university’s gates and prevented female students and instructors from entering the campus on Tuesday, witnesses said.
In the southern city of Kandahar, women’s health care clinics were shut down, a resident said. In some districts, girls’ schools have been closed since the Taliban seized control of them in November.
Women there said they were starting to wear the head-to-toe burqa in the street, partly in fear and partly in anticipation of restrictions ordered by the Taliban.
At Kabul University, in the capital, female students were told they were not allowed to leave their dorm rooms unless accompanied by a male guardian. Two students said they were effectively trapped because they had no male relatives in the city.
In Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, Aliya Kazimy, a 27-year-old university professor, said that women shopping alone in the city’s bazaar had been turned away and told to return with male guardians.
“I am from the generation that had a lot of opportunities after the fall of the Taliban 20 years ago,” she said in a text message. “I was able to achieve my goals of studying, and for a year I’ve been a university professor, and now my future is dark and uncertain. All these years of working hard and dreaming were for nothing. And the little girls who are just starting out, what future awaits them?”
In Britain, the chaotic departure from Afghanistan has drawn comparisons not to helicopters flying out of Saigon but to an earlier debacle: the 1956 Suez crisis, in which a humiliated Britain was forced to pull out of Egypt, having failed to dislodge its nationalist leader.
The problem is, Britain had very little to say about the timing or tactics of the most recent withdrawal, even though it suffered the second-most casualties in the Afghanistan war after the United States.
That has left British officials embarrassed and embittered at President Biden.
“He hasn’t just humiliated America’s Afghan allies,” said Rory Stewart, a former British cabinet minister with lengthy experience in Afghanistan. “He’s humiliated his Western allies by demonstrating their impotence.”
Now, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has labored to cultivate a good relationship with Mr. Biden, must deal with the fallout from a crisis in which he is largely a bystander.
On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson briefed a Parliament recalled from summer recess about his government’s emergency plans to evacuate thousands of British nationals and offer sanctuary to Afghans who helped British soldiers and diplomats in their two decades of engagement there.
Two Afghan athletes who were scheduled to compete at the Paralympics in Tokyo will not attend the Games, organizers said.
Hossain Rasouli, 26, was scheduled to run in a men’s 100-meter event, and Zakia Khudadadi, 22, had qualified to compete in taekwondo, a sport that is making its Paralympic debut. They were scheduled to travel with at least one official, according to the International Paralympic Committee.
The committee said in a statement that the chaos of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, which caused most commercial flights to be suspended, would prevent the athletes from traveling to the Games.
“Due to the serious ongoing situation in the country, all airports are closed and there is no way for them to travel to Tokyo,” the I.P.C. said. “We hope the team and officials remain safe and well during this difficult time.”
Malala Yousafzai, who went on to become an activist for girls’ education and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate after surviving a Taliban assassination attempt, wrote a guest essay for The New York Times’s Opinion section this week. Here is an excerpt from what she wrote.
In the last two decades, millions of Afghan women and girls received an education. Now the future they were promised is dangerously close to slipping away. The Taliban — who until losing power 20 years ago barred nearly all girls and women from attending school and doled out harsh punishment to those who defied them — are back in control. Like many women, I fear for my Afghan sisters.
I cannot help but think of my own childhood. When the Taliban took over my hometown in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2007 and shortly thereafter banned girls from getting an education, I hid my books under my long, hefty shawl and walked to school in fear. Five years later, when I was 15, the Taliban tried to kill me for speaking out about my right to go to school.
I cannot help but be grateful for my life now. After graduating from college last year and starting to carve out my own career path, I cannot imagine losing it all — going back to a life defined for me by men with guns.
For China’s leaders, the chaotic scenes unfolding in Afghanistan have served as stinging vindication of their hostility to American might. But any smugness in Beijing could be premature.
China is now left scrambling to judge how the American defeat could reshape the contest between the world’s two great powers. While the Taliban’s rout has weakened American prestige and its influence on China’s western frontier, it could also create new geopolitical dangers and security risks.
Officials in Beijing worry that extremists could use Afghanistan to regroup on China’s flank and sow violence around the region, even as the Taliban look to deep-pocketed countries like China for aid and investment. The American military withdrawal could also allow the United States to direct its planning and matériel toward countering Chinese power across Asia.
“There should be anxiety rather than glee in Beijing,” said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Ending the military presence in Afghanistan frees up resources and attention to focus on the long-term rivalry with China.”