The Taliban declared an "amnesty" across Afghanistan and urged women to join their government Tuesday, seeking to convince a wary population that they have changed a day after deadly chaos gripped the main airport as desperate crowds tried to flee their rule.
Following a blitz across Afghanistan that saw many cities fall to the insurgents without a fight, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they imposed a brutal rule in the late 1990s. But many Afghans remain skeptical.
Older generations remember the Taliban's ultraconservative Islamic views, which included severe restrictions on women as well as stonings, amputations and public executions before they were ousted by the U.S-led invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
While there were no major reports of abuses or fighting in the capital of Kabul as the Taliban now patrol its streets, many residents have stayed home and remain fearful after the insurgents' takeover saw prisons emptied and armories looted. Many women have expressed dread that the two-decade Western experiment to expand their rights and remake Afghanistan would not survive the resurgent Taliban.
Germany, meanwhile, halted development aid to Afghanistan over the Taliban takeover. Such aid is a crucial source of funding for the country — and the Taliban's efforts to project a milder version of themselves may be aimed at ensuring that money continues to flow.
The promises of amnesty from Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban's cultural commission, were the first comments on how the Taliban might govern on a national level. His remarks remained vague, however, as the Taliban are still negotiating with political leaders of the country's fallen government and no formal handover deal has been announced.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with full dignity and honesty has announced a complete amnesty for all Afghanistan, especially those who were with the opposition or supported the occupiers for years and recently," he said.
Other Taliban leaders have said they won't seek revenge on those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign countries. But some in Kabul allege Taliban fighters have lists of people who cooperated with the government and are seeking them out.
Samangani also described women as "the main victims of the more than 40 years of crisis in Afghanistan."
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan doesn't want the women to be the victims anymore," he said. "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is ready to provide women with environment to work and study, and the presence of women in different (government) structures according to Islamic law and in accordance with our cultural values."
That would be a marked departure from the last time the Taliban were in power, when women were largely confined to their homes. Samangani didn't describe exactly what he meant by Islamic law, implying people already knew the rules. He added that "all sides should join" a government.
In another sign of the Taliban's efforts to portray a new image, a female television anchor on the private broadcaster Tolo interviewed a Taliban official on camera Tuesday in a studio — an interaction that once would have been unthinkable. Meanwhile, women in hijabs demonstrated briefly in Kabul, holding signs demanding the Taliban not "eliminate women" from public life.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, noted both the Taliban's vows and the fear of those now under their rule.
"Such promises will need to be honored, and for the time being — again understandably, given past history — these declarations have been greeted with some skepticism," he said in a statement. "There have been many hard-won advances in human rights over the past two decades. The rights of all Afghans must be defended."
Germany suspended development aid to Afghanistan, estimated at 250 million euros ($294 million) for 2021. The German news agency dpa described Afghanistan as the nation that received the most development aid from Berlin. Other funding separately goes to security services and humanitarian aid.
Swedish Development Aid Minister Per Olsson Fridh, meanwhile, said his government would slow down aid to the country in an interview with the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. But Britain committed to an increase.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said humanitarian aid could rise by 10%. He said the aid budget would be reconfigured for development and humanitarian purposes and that the Taliban would not get any money previously earmarked for security — but he said aid would not be conditioned on how the Taliban govern.
Meanwhile, Kabul's international airport, the only way out for many, reopened to military evacuation flights under the watch of American troops.
All flights were suspended on Monday when thousands of people rushed the airport, desperate to leave the country. In shocking scenes captured on video, some clung to a plane as it took off and then fell to their deaths. At least seven people died in chaos at the airport, U.S. officials said.
Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO's senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, posted video online Tuesday showing the runway empty with U.S. troops on the tarmac. What appeared to be a military cargo transport plane could be seen in the distance.
"I see airplanes landing and taking off," he wrote on Twitter.
Overnight, flight-tracking data showed a U.S. military plane taking off for Qatar, home to the U.S. military Central Command's forward headquarters. A British military cargo plane, headed to Kabul, took off from Dubai.
Still, there were indications that the situation was still tenuous. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, now operating from the airport, urged Americans to register online for evacuations but not come to the airport before being contacted.
The German Foreign Ministry said a first German military transport plane landed in Kabul, but it could only take seven people on board before it had to depart again due to continued chaos.
Across Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross said thousands had been wounded in fighting as the Taliban swept across the country in recent days. However, in many places, security forces and politicians handed over their provinces and bases without a fight, likely fearing what would happen when the last American troops withdrew as planned at the end of the month.
A resolute U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday said he stood "squarely behind" his decision to withdraw American forces and acknowledged the "gut-wrenching" images unfolding in Kabul. President Biden said he faced a choice between honoring a previously negotiated withdrawal agreement or sending thousands more troops back to begin a third decade of war.
"After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces," the president said in a televised address from the White House.
Talks continued Tuesday between the Taliban and several Afghan government officials, including former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who once headed the country's negotiating council. Discussions focused on how a Taliban-dominated government would operate given the changes in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, rather than just dividing up who controlled what ministries, officials with knowledge of the negotiations said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential details of the talks.
President Ashraf Ghani earlier fled the country amid the Taliban advance and his whereabouts remain unknown.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.