KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban special forces in camouflage fired their weapons into the air Saturday, bringing an abrupt and frightening end to the latest protest march in the capital by Afghan women demanding equal rights from the new rulers.
Also on Saturday, the chief of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, which has an outsized influence on the Taliban, made a surprise visit to Kabul.
Taliban fighters quickly captured most of Afghanistan last month and celebrated the departure of the last U.S. forces after 20 years of war. The insurgent group must now govern a war-ravaged country that is heavily reliant on international aid.
The women’s march — the second in as many days in Kabul — began peacefully. Demonstrators laid a wreath outside Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry to honor Afghan soldiers who died fighting the Taliban before marching on to the presidential palace.
“We are here to gain human rights in Afghanistan,” said 20-year-old protester Maryam Naiby. “I love my country. I will always be here.”
As the protesters’ shouts grew louder, several Taliban officials waded into the crowd to ask what they wanted to say.
Flanked by fellow demonstrators, Sudaba Kabiri, a 24-year-old university student, told her Taliban interlocutor that Islam’s Prophet gave women rights and they wanted theirs. The Taliban official promised women would be given their rights but the women, all in their early 20s, were skeptical.
As the demonstrators reached the presidential palace, a dozen Taliban special forces ran into the crowd, firing in the air and sending demonstrators fleeing. Kabiri, who spoke to The Associated Press, said they also fired tear gas.
The Taliban have promised an inclusive government and a more moderate rule than when they last ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. But many Afghans, especially women, are deeply skeptical and fear a roll back of rights gained over the last two decades.
For much of the past two weeks, Taliban officials have been holding meetings among themselves, amid reports of differences among them emerging. Early on Saturday, neighboring Pakistan’s powerful intelligence chief Gen. Faiez Hameed made a surprise visit to Kabul. It wasn’t immediately clear what he had to say to the Taliban leadership but the Pakistani intelligence service has a strong influence on the Taliban.
The Taliban leadership had its headquarters in Pakistan and were often said to be in direct contact with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
The Taliban have promised a broad-based government and have held talks with former president Hamid Karzai and the former government’s negotiation chief Abdullah Abdullah. But the makeup of the new government is uncertain and it was unclear whether hardline ideologues among the Taliban will win the day — and whether the rollbacks feared by the demonstrating women will occur.
Meanwhile, a number of Afghan politicians, military commanders and political activists warned that clashes between the Taliban and resistance militia fighters in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, north of the capital Kabul, might spread across other parts of the country.
The warning came after the Taliban claimed that they had seized control of Panjshir following intense clashes with resistance fighters in the area.
Salahuddin Rabbani, head of Jamiat Islami which is the second largest political party in Afghanistan, warned against the spread of the resistance in Panjshir to the rest of Afghanistan if differences are not resolved through negotiations.
Afghan people in the provinces of Parwan and Kapisa, north of Kabul, rallied to call on the Taliban to stop fighting in Panjshir. “If fighting continues in the area, people will be forced to defend themselves,” they said.
Panjshir has been the only region to hold out against the Taliban following their takeover of Afghanistan.
Ahmad Masoud, the son of the late anti-Soviet Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, has established himself in Panjshir Valley, leading a several-thousand-strong force comprised of militias and remnants of the Afghan army and special forces units who are opposed to the Taliban.
Masoud has called for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban but has said his forces will resist if the narrow and mountainous valley is attacked.
On Friday, Masoud categorically rejected the reports about the collapse of Panjshir, saying, “News of Panjshir conquests is circulating on Pakistani media. This is a lie.”