KABUL: The Taliban celebrated Afghanistan’s Independence Day on Thursday by declaring they beat the United States, but challenges to their rule ranging from running a country severely short on cash and bureaucrats to potentially facing an armed opposition began to emerge.
With many ATMs out of cash and worries about rising food prices in this nation of 38 million people reliant on imports, the Taliban face all the challenges of the civilian government they dethroned without the level of international aid it enjoyed. Meanwhile, opposition figures gathering in the last area of the country not under Taliban rule talked of launching an armed resistance under the banner of the Northern Alliance, which allied with the U.S. during the 2001 invasion.
Still, it was not clear how serious a threat they posed given that the militants overran nearly the entire country in a matter of days with little resistance from Afghan forces. Many fear the Taliban will succeed in erasing two decades of efforts to expand women's and human rights in Afghanistan and remake the country.
The Taliban so far have offered no specifics on how they will lead, other than to say they will be guided by Shariah, or Islamic, law. They are in talks with senior officials of previous Afghan governments. But they face an increasingly precarious situation.
“A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions is unfolding before our eyes,” warned Mary Ellen McGroarty, the head of the World Food Program in Afghanistan. Beyond the difficulties of importing food, she said that drought has seen over 40% of the country’s crop lost. Many who fled the Taliban advance now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul.
“This is really Afghanistan’s hour of greatest need, and we urge the international community to stand by the Afghan people at this time,” she said.
At Kabul's international airport, military evacuation flights continued, according to flight-tracking data. However, access to the airport remained difficult for those wanting to flee. On Thursday, Taliban militants fired into the air to try to control the crowds gathered at the airport's blast walls, trying to get inside. Men, women and children fled.
Overnight, President Joe Biden said that he was committed to keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until every American is evacuated, even if that means maintaining a military presence there beyond his Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal.
Thursday marked Afghanistan’s Independence Day, which commemorates the 1919 treaty that ended British rule in the central Asian nation.
“Fortunately, today we are celebrating the anniversary of independence from Britain," the Taliban said. "We at the same time as a result of our jihadi resistance forced another arrogant power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan.”
Unacknowledged by the insurgents, however, was their violent suppression of a protest Wednesday in the eastern city of Jalalabad, which saw demonstrators lower the Taliban's flag and replace it with Afghanistan's tricolor. At least one person was killed.
In Khost province, Taliban authorities instituted a 24-hour curfew after violently breaking up a similar protest, according to information obtained by journalists monitoring from abroad. The militants did not immediately acknowledge the demonstration or the curfew.
They have urged people to return to work, but most government officials remain in hiding in their homes or are attempting to flee the Taliban. Questions remain over Afghanistan's $9 billion in foreign reserves, the vast majority now apparently frozen in the U.S. The head of the country’s Central Bank warned that the supply of physical U.S. dollars is “close to zero," which will batter the currency, the afghani, and raise the prices of much-needed food.
“The afghani has been defended by literally planeloads of US dollars landing in Kabul on a very regular basis, sometimes weekly,” said Graeme Smith, a consultant researcher with the Overseas Development Institute. "If the Taliban don’t get cash infusions soon to defend the afghani, I think there’s a real risk of a currency devaluation that makes it hard to buy bread on the streets of Kabul for ordinary people.”
Still, Smith, who has written a book on Afghanistan, said the Taliban likely won’t ask for the same billions in international aid sought by the country’s fallen civilian government — large portions of which were funneled off by corruption.
“You’re much more likely to see the Taliban positioning themselves as sort of gatekeepers to the international community as opposed to coming begging for billions of dollars,” he said.
That could limit the power of the international community's threat of sanctions.
Hafiz Ahmad, a shopkeeper in Kabul, said some food has flowed into the capital, but prices have gone up. He hesitated to pass those costs onto his customers but said he had to.
“It is better to have it,” he said. "If there were nothing, then that would be even worse.”
Two of Afghanistan's key border crossings with Pakistan, Torkham near Jalalabad and Chaman near Spin Boldak, are now open for trade. Hundreds of trucks have passed through, Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has said. However, traders still fear insecurity on the roads and confusion over customs duties that could push them to price their goods higher.
Already, the Taliban are charging over $2,400 per truck coming across from Pakistan with scrap metal, said Abdul Nasir Reshtia, the chief executive of the Afghan steel production factories association. President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country and is now in the United Arab Emirates, previously banned the scrap metal trade to boost the country's steel production.
There has been no armed opposition to the Taliban. But videos from the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance militias that allied with the U.S. during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, appear to show potential opposition figures gathering there. That area is in the only province that has not fallen to the Taliban.
Those figures include members of the deposed government — Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who asserted on Twitter that he is the country’s rightful president, and Defense Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi — as well as Ahmad Massoud, the son of the slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, Massoud asked for weapons and aid to fight the Taliban.
“I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father’s footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban,” he wrote.