The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taliban flag flies over Kabul presidential palace as world commemorates 9/11 attacks

Students hold Taliban flags as they listen a speaker during a pro-Taliban rally at the Shaheed Rabbani Education University in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2021. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

On the day the United States and the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban flew its flag over the presidential palace in Kabul, where until last month the tricolor Afghanistan national flag flew.

The white banner with the Shahada (testimony) written across it was raised at an 11 a.m. ceremony Saturday to mark the beginning of work for the Taliban’s caretaker government, said Ahmadullah Muttaqi, multimedia chief of the Taliban’s cultural commission, according to the Associated Press. Muttaqi said the group’s new prime minister, Mohammad Hasah Akhund, raised the flag.

The Taliban did not issue a formal statement on the anniversary of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks that preluded them being driven from power 20 years earlier. But the image of the flag served as another reminder of the militant group’s stunning return after two decades of fighting U.S.-led forces. The Taliban overwhelmed Afghan troops and stormed back into Kabul last month as the United States was ending its military presence.

The Taliban took control of the Kabul airport Aug. 31, as celebratory gunfire and fireworks echoed across the city. (Video: The Washington Post)

Since 2001, the U.S.-led coalition has substantially weakened al-Qaeda, and the Taliban has said that it would stop the international terrorist group from using Afghanistan as its base — though some ties between the two groups remain, outside observers say.

Rather than dealing with the terrorist issue, the Taliban seems mostly focused on consolidating power and organizing a government. The northern Panjshir region, the last holdout province, has been subjected to an increasing campaign of terror and fear, as allegations of rights abuses grow.

In the Paktia province south of Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a gathering that “signals are positive” that the Islamic Emirate will be recognized at an international level, reported Ariana News. He said that the Taliban is providing what the international community wants: the maintenance of countrywide security and a “clear policy” and assurance countering “fears that Afghanistan will become a threat against them.”

But the United States and many Western allies have made no firm pledges on dealings with the Taliban government.

Among the many complications for diplomatic recognition and international aid is the Taliban’s outreach to the Haqqani network, a faction seen as a conduit between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and whose leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is on the FBI’s most wanted list, with a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. He is now acting interior minister, overseeing the nation’s police, intelligence services and other security forces. Other Haqqani network figures also have roles in the Taliban’s government.

Another issue is the role of women in the Islamist society, especially those who served as civil servants under the previous government. The Taliban has not officially commented on the status of female civil servants.

On Saturday, the Taliban repeated a call for civil servants to return to work — but not most of the thousands of women who served before the Islamist militants’ takeover, who have been sent home from their offices.

One civil servant, who spoke to The Washington Post on Saturday on the condition of anonymity due to fears of backlash from the Taliban, said she visited her office several days ago but was told to return home by an armed Taliban guard outside her office. She has not heard anything on her salary, either, as officials told her “no decision” has been made as of yet. Only women in the health care and education sectors have been allowed to return to their jobs since the Taliban took over.

Women have been at the forefront of protests in recent days, demonstrating against the Taliban’s decision not to include any women in the caretaker government.

After the Taliban seized power over Afghanistan on Aug. 15, some women have taken to the streets to protest. (Video: Reuters)

In an apparent Taliban attempt at portraying public support, women in full-face veils joined a demonstration backing the Taliban and its policies of gender segregation, as they were flanked by Taliban fighters carrying machine guns and rifles. The women marched outside, some of them holding signs including banners reading in English: “We are satisfied with attitude and behavior of Mujahideens” and “We don’t want coeducation.” Protests that do not have the Taliban’s approval have been banned.

“We are against those women who are protesting on the streets, claiming they are representative of women,” said one speaker at the pro-Taliban demonstration, according to Agence France-Presse. The previous government was “misusing women,” she said.

The scenes stood in stark contrast to the violent suppression of protests for women’s rights earlier in the week. They also underscore the unraveling of the greater liberties and rights that had taken root since 2001.

Clashes, meanwhile, have continued in the rebellious Panjshir province, which Taliban militants said they captured this week. Residents say there is an acute shortage of food, medicine and other basic supplies in the valley, and that the Taliban has also carried out extrajudicial killings of civilians, according to witnesses. The Taliban has denied these reports.

A 52-year-old woman who recently fled the province described the clashes there as the “worst time” for her and her family.

“We could hear gunshots and shouting in the streets, and the Taliban was going from house to house to search for resistance fighters and weapons,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, citing the security situation. Taliban fighters knocked on her door, asking for people connected to the former government and military, she said, though her family had not supported either side of the conflict.

Others who recently left said they had to pass some half-dozen checkpoints before reaching Kabul, all guarded by armed Taliban fighters. A resident of Kabul, who went to the Panjshir Valley to help family members get out of the area, said he was told by Taliban officials to delete any photos and videos he took there.

The United Nations human rights office said Friday that it was growing concerned over “an increasingly violent response” by the Taliban to protests, including the use of “live ammunition, batons and whips.”

Claire Parker in Washington and Sudarsan Raghavan in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.