KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban declared an “amnesty” across Afghanistan and urged women to join their government Tuesday, seeking to convince a wary population that they have changed a day after deadly chaos gripped the main airport as desperate crowds tried to flee the country.
Following a blitz across Afghanistan that saw many cities fall to the insurgents without a fight, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they imposed a brutal rule in the late 1990s. But many Afghans remain skeptical.
Older generations remember the Taliban’s ultraconservative Islamic views, which included severe restrictions on women as well as stonings, amputations and public executions before they were ousted by the U.S-led invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
While there were no major reports of abuses or fighting in the capital of Kabul as the Taliban now patrol its streets, many residents have stayed home and remain fearful after the insurgents’ takeover saw prisons emptied and armories looted.
The promises of amnesty from Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, were the first comments on how the Taliban might govern on a national level. His remarks remained vague, however, as the Taliban are still negotiating with political leaders of the country’s fallen government and no formal handover deal has been announced.
“The Islamic Emirate doesn’t want women to be victims,” Samangani said, using the militants’ name for Afghanistan. “They should be in the government structure according to Shariah law.”
That would be a marked departure from the last time the Taliban were in power, when women were largely confined to their homes.
Samangani didn’t describe exactly what he meant by Shariah, or Islamic, law, implying people already knew the rules the Taliban expected them to follow. He added that “all sides should join” a government.
It was also not clear what he meant by an amnesty, although other Taliban leaders have said they won’t seek revenge on those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign countries. But some in Kabul allege Taliban fighters have lists of people who cooperated with the government and are seeking them out.
Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, noted both the Taliban’s vows and the fear of those now under their rule.
“Such promises will need to be honored, and for the time being — again understandably, given past history — these declarations have been greeted with some skepticism,” he said in a statement. “Nevertheless, the promises have been made, and whether or not they are honored or broken will be closely scrutinized.”
He added: “There have been many hard-won advances in human rights over the past two decades. The rights of all Afghans must be defended.”
Meanwhile Tuesday, Kabul’s international airport, the only way out for many, reopened to military evacuation flights under the watch of American troops.
All flights were suspended on Monday when thousands of people rushed the airport, desperate to leave the country. In shocking scenes captured on video, some clung to a plane as it took off and then fell to their deaths. At least seven people died in the chaos, U.S. officials said.
Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO’s senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, posted video online showing the runway empty with U.S. troops on the tarmac. What appeared to be a military cargo transport plane could be seen in the distance from behind a chain-link fence in the footage.
“I see airplanes landing and taking off,” he wrote on Twitter.
Overnight, flight-tracking data showed a U.S. military plane taking off for Qatar, home to the U.S. military Central Command’s forward headquarters. A British military cargo plane also was flying to Kabul after taking off from Dubai. Other military aircraft remained in the air in the region.
Still, there were indications that the situation was still tenuous. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, now operating from the airport, urged Americans to register online for evacuations but not come to the airport before being contacted.
The German Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said a first German military transport plane has landed in Kabul, but it could only take seven people on board before it had to depart again.
“Because of the chaotic conditions at the airport and regular exchanges of fire at the access point last night, it was not possible for further German citizens and other people who need to be evacuated to come to the airport without protection from the German army,” the ministry said.
A special military flight with some 120 Indian officials separately landed in the western state of Gujarat after taking off from Kabul’s main airport on Tuesday, the Press Trust of India and state TV reported. Another flight made it off the ground Monday as well.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that the staff from the Swedish Embassy in Kabul had returned to Sweden.
Across Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross said thousands had been wounded in fighting as the Taliban swept across the country in recent days. However, in many places, security forces and politicians handed over their provinces and bases without a fight, likely believing the two-decade Western experiment to remake Afghanistan would not survive the resurgent Taliban. The last American troops had planned to withdraw at the end of the month.
“The world is following events in Afghanistan with a heavy heart and deep disquiet about what lies ahead,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
A resolute U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday said he stood “squarely behind” his decision to withdraw American forces and acknowledged the “gut-wrenching” images unfolding in Kabul. Biden said he faced a choice between honoring a previously negotiated withdrawal agreement or sending thousands more troops back to begin a third decade of war.
“After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said in a televised address from the White House.
Talks appeared to be continuing between the Taliban and several Afghan government officials, including former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who once headed the country’s negotiating council. President Ashraf Ghani earlier fled the country amid the Taliban advance and his whereabouts remain unknown.
An official with direct knowledge of the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to brief journalists, said senior Taliban leader Amir Khan Muttaqi had arrived in Kabul from Qatar. Muttaqi is a former higher education minister during the Taliban’s last rule. Muttaqi had begun making contact with Afghan political leaders even before Ghani fled.
Story by Ahmad Seir, Tameem Akhgar, Kathy Gannon and Jon Gambrell. Associated Press writers Kirsten Grieshaber and Jan Olson contributed to this report.