Taliban faces growing dissent as protests spread in Afghan cities

The Taliban was facing growing signs of dissent in several cities as Afghans carried the national flag in a second day of protests that led to reports of at least two deaths.

Protesters marched in Kabul and other cities on Thursday to celebrate Afghanistan’s Independence Day, which commemorates the 1919 war that ended British control of the country.

Some carried Afghanistan’s black, red and green flag in an apparent show of defiance to the Taliban, which flies a white flag emblazoned with an Islamic oath.

At least two people were killed in the eastern city of Asadabad when the Taliban fired on the crowd and a Taliban fighter was stabbed, according to Al Jazeera. Reuters reported that it wasn’t clear if the deaths were caused by shooting or a stampede.

The protests marked the strongest displays of popular opposition to the Islamists since they swept into Kabul uncontested on Sunday on the heels of withdrawing US troops.

Many cities in Afghanistan maintained an uneasy calm in the first days after the Taliban took over as residents — particularly professional women and those associated with the former government or military — stayed at home in fear of retribution.

A protest in the city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, at which at least three people were killed, marked one of the first public displays of dissent. Demonstrations followed in several more cities.

The Taliban, which used brutal violence to suppress women’s rights and punish dissenters when it ruled in the 1990s, has so far sought to present a more moderate image. A spokesman for the group has said it would offer amnesty to opponents and that women’s rights will be protected within the limits of Islamic law.

But observers are sceptical and some of those overtures have been contradicted by reports of beatings and killings at the hands of the victorious militants.

Social media videos showed Taliban fighters on Thursday firing into the air to disperse crowds around Kabul airport, which has been the scene of continued chaos as many Afghans try to escape the country.

The US has sent at least 4,000 troops to secure the site and help evacuate US nationals and Afghan allies get out, but American officials say the pace of evacuations is slow and the situation remains volatile.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday acknowledged that the rapid US withdrawal had resulted in “chaos ensuing” but argued it was inevitable.

He defended his handling of the crisis and decision to press ahead with the withdrawal, even after it became clear that the Taliban would swiftly return to power.

The Islamists’ remaining opponents will hope that Wednesday and Thursday’s protests could signal the start of more sustained resistance. 

The Taliban is yet to conquer Panjshir, a mountainous province that has long been a haven for guerrilla fighters. Ahmad Massoud, the son of a famous anti-Taliban warlord, has said he is trying to gather resistance fighters at his base in the province.

Amrullah Saleh, the deposed vice-president who met Massoud this week and declared himself caretaker president, wrote on Twitter that he “salute[s] those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation and the country”.

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