As President Biden navigates the thorny domestic and international politics of meeting an August 31 withdrawal deadline from Afghanistan, and as Taliban leaders leave the world guessing about how they plan to rule, Afghans are undergoing a terrifying transition period: hundreds of thousands people fear for their lives feeding families becomes more difficult and countless people are afraid to appear in public.
The people of Afghanistan have been largely powerless as the leaders determine their fate. And they live in increasingly cruel conditions, whether they try desperately to escape or not.
Residents struggle to go about their daily lives in an economy that, supported by the previous generation by US aid, is now in free fall. Banks are closed. Cash is becoming scarcer and food prices are rising. Fuel is getting harder and harder to find. Government services have come to a standstill as officials shun their jobs, fearing retaliation from the Taliban.
Despite the Taliban’s efforts to reassure Afghans that they will guarantee the safety of the people, there are signs that they will maintain the brutal tactics of their previous rule. On Tuesday, the United Nations’ top human rights official quoted “distressing and credible” reports that the Taliban had executed civilians and non-combatant soldiers.
A Taliban spokesman said on Tuesday that women are not allowed to leave their homes because militants have not yet been trained not to harm them. The spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, called it a “temporary” policy designed to protect women until the Taliban could guarantee their safety.
“We are afraid that our new and not yet well-trained troops will mistreat women,” said Mr Mujahid. “We don’t want our troops, God forbid, to harm or harass women.”
People trying to flee as they pass Taliban checkpoints have been confronted with chaotic scenes outside the Kabul airport. At least seven Afghan civilians, including a toddler, have been trampled. On Tuesday, the Taliban said they would block Afghans trying to leave the country from traveling to the airport, and President Biden warned that the risk of a terrorist attack in that area was growing every day.
But apart from the area around the airport, there is a relative calm about Kabul, as many residents hide in their homes or carefully go outside to see what life would be like under the new rulers. Even residents who said they feared the Taliban were struck by the relative order and tranquility on the streets – a stark contrast to the years of increasing crime and violence that had become a daily facet of life in the capital.
A resident named Mohib said the streets in his part of town were deserted, with people “scared and terrorized” in their homes.
“People feel that the Taliban could come at any moment to take everything from them,” he said.
There are six days left until the United States’ withdrawal deadline, which world leaders unsuccessfully lobbied Biden on Tuesday to ease. In addition to international pressure, the president has encountered skepticism from both political parties at home that the evacuation can be completed in time.
About 19,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul in the past 24 hours, Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy press secretary of the White House, said on Twitter in the early hours of Wednesday. Since August 14, the United States has evacuated about 82,300 people or facilitated the evacuation on military and coalition flights.
The United States has not indicated how many people are yet to be evacuated, but US officials believe there are still thousands of Americans in Afghanistan, including some far outside Kabul. Tens of thousands of Afghans who have worked for the US government over the past two decades are among those desperate to leave.
And refugee and resettlement experts estimate that at least 300,000 Afghans are at risk of attack by the Taliban because of their associations with Americans.