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The Taliban are scrambling to work out how to run Afghanistan after the exiled leaders of the militant Islamist group returned to a country that has changed profoundly since it was ousted from power 20 years ago.
While the Taliban appointed shadow governors and administrators to rule the captured territory, the US struggled to restore a botched evacuation plan for thousands of people trying to flee Kabul.
Washington sent another 1,000 troops to Kabul in an attempt to reassert control of the city’s airport after it was overrun by desperate Afghans and foreign civilians.
Many local residents reportedly still struggled to reach the airport on Wednesday. Taliban militants have set up checkpoints in the city and have returned some Afghans.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of US forces in the region, said he had warned Taliban leaders “against interfering with our evacuation”.
US citizens in the country were also told that the US government “cannot guarantee” their safety when they tried to get to the airport. The US wants to evacuate as many as 9,000 people a day, a significant increase from the hundreds currently being flown out of the country.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman who appeared at the group’s first press conference since taking Kabul, said on Tuesday that preparations are underway to form a government.
The militants are seeking to consolidate power after taking control of Afghanistan in just over a week and driving President Ashraf Ghani and most senior government officials into exile.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Islamist group’s top political leader, arrived on Tuesday after 20 years in Afghanistan and flew to the southern city of Kandahar from Qatar, where he has lived since the US secured his release from a Pakistani prison in 2018.
Baradar, who helped negotiate the 2020 deal with Donald Trump’s administration to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, is expected to play a leading role in an Islamist government in the coming days.
“They have a lot of consolidation to do,” said Rudra Chaudhuri, a senior lecturer in King College London’s Department of War Studies.
“They have no civil service, there is no cadre of administrators,” he said. “They will need parts of the old government to keep this system together and that will require a discussion about transition.”
The group has ordered its fighters not to interfere in the operations of international organizations such as the UN. But it was not clear how much control the political leadership had over fighters on the ground.
“These are people who haven’t personally met their own military commanders in 10 or 15 years,” Chaudhuri said.
The Taliban urged the new government to be more moderate than its ruthless government in the 1990s, when the regime wiped out women’s rights and imposed severe penalties for alleged crimes, including public executions and stoning of alleged adulterers.
Mujahid said women’s rights would be respected “within the framework of Islam” and the group would not seek retaliation against former Afghan officials or soldiers.
A Kabul-based security analyst said the Taliban were trying to build “soft momentum of power rather than the hard power of their military attack and conquest”.
But reports from across the country pointed to violence by the victorious Taliban fighters, and many women had been ordered to stay at home.
On Tuesday, a group of more than 40 Democratic and Republican lawmakers called on President Joe Biden to maintain the airlift until all U.S. citizens and Afghan allies were evacuated.
Chaos at Kabul airport had repeatedly halted evacuation flights this week and left at least five dead, with some people falling from the sky after clinging to departing planes.
The US Air Force said “human remains” were discovered in the wheel well of a plane after it landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.