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Protests pose early challenge as Taliban assert rule over uneasy Afghanistan

In Kabul and beyond, the challenges facing the militant group in the wake of its rapid takeover of the country were mounting.
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Afghan protesters defied the Taliban on Thursday, wielding the national flag in a nascent symbol of resistance as the militant group's rule faced a growing number of early challenges.

While the country settled uneasily into its new life, the Taliban celebrated independence day for "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" — marking the occasion with a declaration of victory over the United States and a reassertion of their regime.

But in Kabul and beyond, the challenges were mounting in the wake of the Taliban's rapid takeover: Thousands continued to defy warnings and beatings to seek evacuation via the capital's airport, a small and scattered opposition emerged in the form of protests and a potential armed rebellion, and the country's dire economic situation prompted warnings of a humanitarian crisis.

Image: Afghans wave a black, red and green banner in honor of the Afghan flag.
The demonstrations came as Afghans mark the Independence Day holiday that commemorates the 1919 treaty that ended British rule.Rahmat Gul / AP

In the city of Asadabad, in northeastern Kunar province, a group of people celebrating Independence Day was carrying the country’s national flag and chanting, “Long live Afghanistan,” when it was fired at by the Taliban, local resident Abdul Khanan told NBC News.

“When people heard about this incident, they staged a demonstration against the Taliban and warned them not to play with Afghanistan’s national symbols,” he said.

Three people were killed and three others injured in the altercation, he added.

NBC News was unable to verify this claim and a local Taliban official would only confirm that three people were injured in what he called the “unpleasant incident.”

In Kabul, NBC News also witnessed a protest on the streets of the capital as some Afghans rallied in opposition to what many fear will be a return to the group's hard-line rule.

A procession of cars and people near Kabul’s airport carried long black, red and green banners in honor of the Afghan flag — an early symbol of defiance, as the militants have their own flag.

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Videos sent to NBC News from the city showed fighters in military vehicles and on the ground, patrolling the streets with automatic rifles. One video showed a convoy of young Afghans, men and women, walking resolutely along a road with their backpacks and suitcases. It was unclear whether they were heading toward the airport.

Elsewhere in the capital, shops and street markets were open Thursday and busy traffic resumed. A beauty salon, meanwhile, had images of women defaced using spray paint.

IMage: A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shahr-e-Naw in Kabul, Afghanistan.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they enacted laws that made women and girls almost invisible in public life.Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images

Since taking over after a rapid military blitz, the Taliban have pledged to respect women’s rights and made guarantees of safety for the country's citizens in a bid to build a more moderate image.

But their efforts to consolidate control threatened to undermine that.

Striking images have shown a bloodied woman and child, apparently beaten by Taliban fighters outside the Kabul airport despite the group's earlier assurances of "safe passage."

The militants also cracked down on a protest in the eastern city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, leaving at least three people dead, according to a local resident and Reuters, after residents tried to install the Afghan flag in place of the white Taliban banner.

"Salute those who carry the national flag and thus stand for dignity of the nation and the country," a top official for the deposed Afghan government, Amrullah Saleh, wrote on Twitter.

In Khost, a city 90 miles southeast of Kabul, the Taliban enforced a 24-hour curfew in an effort to maintain order after unrest there. Markets and shops were shut Thursday, and the group had conducted raids to arrest those behind the protests, one Taliban commander told NBC News on condition of anonymity.

"Our enemies are actually exploiting the issue of the flag," the commander said.

While questions remained over the exact nature of Afghanistan's next government and the group's claims to moderation, the Taliban’s reassertion of the Islamic Emirate — their name for Afghanistan — has nonetheless established a return to the militant group's control over the country just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

“Fortunately, today we are celebrating the anniversary of independence from Britain,” the Taliban said in a statement early Thursday. “We at the same time as a result of our jihadi resistance forced another arrogant power of the world, the United States, to fail and retreat from our holy territory of Afghanistan.”

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks, overthrowing the Taliban regime that had sheltered 9/11 architect and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Two decades on, the militants are back in control after their lightning-fast takeover and the U.S. is scrambling for the exits.

The State Department said Thursday that the U.S. has airlifted more than 7,000 evacuees since Saturday and more than 6,000 people have been fully processed and will soon board planes.

Diplomats were aware of congestion around the airport and were working with the Defense Department to facilitate smoother processing of those boarding planes, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

President Joe Biden has said that, if needed, U.S. forces could remain in Afghanistan past his Aug. 31 deadline to get every American out of the country.

On Thursday, thousands of Afghans were still risking their lives trying to reach the Kabul airport to leave the country as the Taliban consolidated control.

The militants urged anyone who did not have the proper documentation to leave the area and said 12 people have been killed in and around the airport either by gunfire or in stampedes since they seized control Sunday, according to Reuters.

NBC News has not verified the number of dead.

The Taliban so far have offered few specifics on how they will lead, other than to say they will be guided by Sharia, or Islamic law. They are in talks with senior officials of previous Afghan governments and in the meantime have urged people to return to work.

Image: Newly joined armed men, supporting the Afghan security forces against the Taliban, stand along a road in Bazarak, Panjshir province.
Newly joined armed men along a road in Panjshir province.Ahmad Sahel Arman / AFP - Getty Images

But they face a precarious economic reality of severe cash shortages as a dwindling supply of U.S. dollars prompts fears about rising food prices. Aid agencies, many of which have continued their work in the country, have urged the international community to continue delivering critical help.

“A humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions is unfolding before our eyes,” warned Mary Ellen McGroarty, the head of the World Food Program in Afghanistan. “This is really Afghanistan’s hour of greatest need, and we urge the international community to stand by the Afghan people at this time,” she said Thursday.

While there has so far been no armed opposition to the Taliban, there are early signs of a potential rebellion brewing in the one area of the country not under the group's rule.

Videos that have emerged from the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, appear to show potential opposition figures gathering there. Those include Saleh, who has declared himself a "legitimate caretaker president," as well as Ahmad Massoud, the son of the slain rebel leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, Massoud asked for weapons and aid to fight the Taliban.