Taliban fighters violently suppressed a women’s protest Saturday in Kabul, while 70 miles to the north ex-Afghan army and militia members battled the Islamist group in Panjshir province, as pockets of anti-Taliban resistance continued to flare up.
Several of the women, who were demanding inclusion in the yet-to-be named Taliban government, said they were beaten by Taliban fighters — some of the first concrete evidence of harsh treatment of women by the group.
Since they swept to power last month Taliban leaders have been on a “charm offensive” seeking to convince the world, aid groups and their own population that the harsh rule they imposed in their last stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, was a thing of the past. But there was little restraint in evidence at the Kabul protest.
A 24-year-old participant said in a telephone interview that the Taliban tried to rout the gathering of about 100 women using tear gas, rifle butts and metal clubs or tools. She said she received five stitches to close a head wound after she was knocked unconscious with a blow from one of the metal objects.
“When I tried to resist and continue the march, one of the armed Taliban pushed me and hit me with a sharp metal device,” said the woman, who The New York Times is identifying only by her first name, Nargis, to guard against retribution.
“They pushed everybody away and forced us to leave while chasing us with their spray, weapons and metal devices,” said Nargis. “The Taliban kept cursing, using abusive language.” Video of the incident on Afghan news media outlets showed a bearded Taliban member, surrounded by gunmen, exhorting the women to disperse through a megaphone, which was then snatched from his hand by one of the women.
On Friday night, the Taliban pushed farther into the Panjshir Valley in an effort to crush resistance led by Ahmad Massoud, son of legendary resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who held off the Taliban 25 years ago.
An Italian aid group, Emergency, which operates a hospital in the valley, said on Twitter that the Taliban had reached the village of Anabah, inside Panjshir province.
In a video he sent to the BBC, another of the rebels’ leaders, a former vice president, Amrullah Saleh, acknowledged that his forces are under assault but vowed that they would not surrender.
“The situation is difficult,” he said. “We have been under invasion of the Taliban. We have held ground. We have resisted. The resistance is not going to surrender, and it is not going to bow to terrorism.”
He told the BBC that rumors of a Taliban victory were “baseless.” But he admitted that conditions in the valley were difficult, with the Taliban having cut off phone, internet and electricity lines.
It was not possible, from competing reports from the two sides, to get a precise assessment of their respective military positions. Analysts have said that the rebels’ chief aim for the moment is to hold off the Taliban until late October when mountain snows will preclude military operations, giving them five months or so to restock arms and perhaps gain outside help.
Reports that the Panjshir Valley had fallen Friday night touched off bursts of celebratory Taliban gunfire in the capital, killing at least two. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid later criticized the gunfire and called on fighters to “thank God instead.”
Mujahid is likely to be named information minister in a new Afghan government whose composition has been the subject of rumors for days. The naming of the new ruling structure was delayed yet again Saturday, but it appeared increasingly likely that it would include only figures from the Taliban movement. That would contradict early suggestions that the group would reach outside its ranks in an effort to appear inclusive.
The local branch of ISIS, Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, blamed for the deadly airport bombing in Kabul last month, continued to create problems for the Taliban. A senior official of a prominent Western aid agency in Kunduz reported a number of killings of Taliban members in the last week of August, apparently by ISIS-K members, and even the raising of an ISIS-K flag, later taken down.
Pakistan, whose intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, has provided funding and sanctuary to Taliban leadership for two decades, showed its hand Saturday. Both the Afghan and Pakistani news media reported that the head of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, flew into the Afghan capital for talks.
At the reopened money exchange, traders bemoaned the country’s faltering economy. Government workers are unable to get to their offices and are going unpaid, they said, while cash is increasingly scarce and prices are rising sharply.
“People are facing challenges,” said Haji Ghulam Hazrat, a money trader at the exchange. “Most of the people were government employees,” he said, referring to his customers, “and now they are jobless and at home,” Hazrat added: “In the last 12 days there have been no transactions, and people were unable to shop.”
With the aid-dependent country’s economy in free-fall — nearly 80% of the previous government’s budget came from foreign aid that has been cut off — the United Nations has convened a “high-level ministerial humanitarian meeting” in Geneva on Sept. 13 to appeal for aid. Nearly half the country is “malnourished,” said the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov. Nearly half of all children under the age of 5 are predicted to be acutely malnourished in the next 12 months, the U.N. said.
Still, there were signs of a creeping return to a kind of normality, as domestic flights resumed and the U.N.’s humanitarian flights restarted. Two cash transfer agencies, Western Union and MoneyGram, reopened for business, a vital step for a country with a large diaspora.
But for all the hints of resumption of daily life, there were as many that bespoke a future in Afghanistan very different from the immediate past. The violent suppression of the women’s demonstration was one of them.
Saturday’s marchers had wanted to “pay our respect to those soldiers” who had fought for the now-defunct republic, one of the protesters, a female ex-Afghan army company commander, said in a telephone interview. But after placing flowers at the former Defense Ministry “we were surrounded by armed Taliban from all sides,” said the woman, who The Times is identifying only by her first name, Rukhshana.
“They asked us to leave and stop the protest,” she said. “Some of the Taliban beat us.
“They treated us like animals,” Rukhshana added.
“We were only launching a simple protest,” she said. “We wanted to ask for our rights through this rally and show that we exist. We have worked hard, we have studied and struggled, offered sacrifices, lost our husbands,” she said.
She vowed to keep protesting. “We will continue our struggle until we get our rights back in this government. They took over our country by the force of their weapons.”