The Taliban have taken over Afghanistan after a lightning offensive and are consolidating power. (Photo: AP)
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Afghanistan under the Taliban—what’s next?


The Taliban have taken over Afghanistan after a lightning offensive and are consolidating power.

The world was stunned by the speed with which the Taliban rolled into the capital, Kabul. In the preceding month, district after district fell to its fighters as government troops deserted or surrendered. The movement’s leaders have begun contact with figures in previous Afghan administrations to discuss what form the next government will take. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s political wing, is expected to play a central role in the discussions, while Taliban spokesmen have urged citizens to go about their daily business.

After initially closing, many stores have reopened and traffic police have returned to work. Some Islamist extremists have celebrated on social media. But many Afghans who worked with Western embassies, militaries or agencies fear reprisals and are trying to find a way out of the country.

Western countries are rushing to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies. It is creating an unprecedented crisis at Kabul’s airport.

If the U.S. was hoping to avoid scenes comparable with its departure from Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War, it failed. Images of Afghans running alongside military transport planes, clambering on as they prepare for take off, have been shown repeatedly on television screens and websites around the world. The crowds were so thick Monday that the U.S. briefly suspended flights. At least eight people were killed in the chaos. Two armed Afghans were shot dead after approaching U.S. Marines in the melee and video images appeared to show people possibly falling from a plane. The Pentagon is investigating what happened.

Evacuation flights have now resumed as Western governments and agencies attempt to secure passage for Afghan nationals who worked with them, and their dependents. The Taliban have set up checkpoints to the airport, which is under U.S. military control, and those being admitted have slowed to a trickle.

Intelligence failure and two decades of missteps led to the U.S. withdrawal.

The U.S. was working on the idea that President Ashraf Ghani’s government could collapse as soon as six months after an American withdrawal, based on a timeline laid out in a June intelligence estimate. In reality, the Taliban moved far more quickly than expected, buoyed by a firm deadline for the U.S. departure and surprising Mr. Biden and administration officials with the speed of their advance into Kabul.

The Taliban’s offensive exposed key weaknesses of the Afghan armed forces that had been covered over by U.S. support and hundreds of billions of dollars in investment. One was their dependence on air cover to resupply remote outposts. Another was systemic corruption, which encouraged many troops to drop arms and change into civilian clothing when the Taliban advanced.

In many districts, the insurgents went virtually unchallenged. “This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Mr. Biden said in a televised address.

Afghan society is bracing for deep changes as reports of executions and forced “marriages” emerge.

The Taliban have tried to project a more moderate face since arriving in Kabul, offering an amnesty to government workers and encouraging people to go about their daily business. After Taliban members visited the headquarters of independent news channel Tolo News, female newscasters returned to the air.

There is widespread apprehension in the city, however, driven in part by reports of Taliban atrocities elsewhere in the country, including the abduction of unmarried women and girls over the age of 12 to serve as “wives” to Taliban fighters.

On their first day in the capital, Taliban personnel searched the homes and offices of government officials, sometimes searching the phones of passersby for supposedly incriminating information, such as messages in English. Other Afghans destroyed documents linking them to the government or to Western agencies. Some women had to mull whether to destroy educational certificates, such as university degrees.

Many Afghans who worked with foreign embassies or media or aid agencies are still trying to obtain visas and a place on evacuation flights, if they can pass the Taliban checkpoints.

U.S. efforts to isolate the Taliban could be undercut if China, Russia and others reach out to the new regime.

China’s state media has mocked the U.S.’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan but is wary about how it goes about approaching the new government. The two countries share a narrow border around 50 miles long, and Beijing is concerned the Taliban’s revival could inspire an Islamist movement among the minority Uyghur population in the northwestern Xinjiang region. Still, Beijing sees potential benefits to aligning itself with the Taliban and might formally acknowledge a Taliban-led government, which could help it benefit from an eventual reconstruction of Afghanistan or extend more influence in the region.

Russia, Pakistan and Iran are among the countries retaining their embassies in Kabul as others depart, with Zamir Kabulov, Moscow’s special presidential representative for Afghanistan, saying Monday that it might be easier to forge agreements with the Taliban than the previous administration. Both China and Russia have hosted senior Taliban leaders before the U.S. departure and the new government in Kabul may have to lean on their support to veto any new United Nations sanctions.

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