The Taliban appears to have moved closer to forming a new government in Afghanistan as the hard-line Islamist group continues to battle resistance fighters in a key opposition stronghold north of Kabul.
The militants face the challenge of shifting gears from being an insurgent group to governing power more than two weeks after seizing control of most of the country and days after the United States fully withdrew its troops after a 20-year presence.
Many of the world's leading nations are waiting to see who will be in the government and whether the next administration's actions will be in line with the Taliban's promises of being more moderate than during its brutal rule between 1996 and 2001, when it enforced a radical form of Islamic law.
"We have to judge them on their actions, not on their words," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on September 3. "We will hold them accountable to what they have promised -- on preventing Afghanistan being a safe haven for international terrorists, on human rights, especially rights of women, and on free passage."
The legitimacy of the new administration in the eyes of international donors and investors will be crucial for the economy, which is in tatters as the country battles drought and the ravages of a conflict that took the lives of an estimated 240,000 Afghans.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will travel to Geneva to convene a high level conference on aid for Afghanistan on September 13, his spokesman said.
"The conference will advocate for a swift scale-up in funding so the lifesaving humanitarian operation can continue; and appeal for full and unimpeded humanitarian access to make sure Afghans continue to get the essential services they need," Stephane Dujarric said on September 3 in a statement.
Development gains must also be protected and the rights of women are an "essential" part of Afghanistan's future stability, Dujarric said.
Aid agencies have warned that many Afghans were struggling to feed their families and millions may now face starvation.
Reuters quoted three sources as saying that the government will be led by Taliban co-founder and political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is considered a relative moderate within the group.
He will be joined by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a member of Taliban’s Doha political office, in senior government positions.
"All the top leaders have arrived in Kabul, where preparations are in final stages to announce the new government," a Taliban member said under condition of anonymity.
Another source said that Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada will focus on religious matters and governance within the framework of Islam, according to Reuters.
A Taliban spokesman told AFP on September 3 that the announcement of a new administration would not happen until September 4 at the earliest.
While the Taliban have spoken of its will to form a consensus government, a source close to the militants told Reuters that the interim government being formed would consist solely of Taliban members.
Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban in 1994, spent eight years in prison in Pakistan after being reportedly arrested in Karachi in 2010 in an operation by U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agents. He was eventually released at the request of the United States.
In February 2020, he helped negotiate the landmark Doha agreement with the United States that aimed to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15 after a lightning offensive across the country, the militants have faced resistance from opposition groups and remnants of the Afghan Army holding out in Panjshir Valley, about 100 kilometers northeast of the capital, with reports of casualties.
A spokesman for the National Resistance Front (NRF) said the resistance fighters were battling to repulse "heavy" assaults, as the Taliban seeks to capture the only province that has not fallen to the militants.
The NRF followers, said to number in the thousands, are led by Ahmad Masud, son of a former mujahedin commander who fought against the Taliban in northeastern Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Efforts to negotiate a settlement appear to have broken down, with each side blaming the other for the failure.
The Taliban has declared an amnesty for all Afghans who worked with foreign forces during the war that ousted it from power and said it was in talks with “all factions” to reach an agreement on a future government.
The group has also promised a more tolerant and open brand of rule compared with their first stint in power, but many reports have said summary executions and house-to-house searches for those who worked with international groups or the previous government are occurring across the country.
Amid speculation on how the new Taliban government is likely to treat women, around 30 women took to the streets of Kabul to demand access to education, the right to return to work, and a role in governing the country.
"Freedom is our motto. It makes us proud,” read one of the protesters’ signs.
The small rally was the second women's protest in as many days demanding equal rights from Afghanistan's new rulers, with the other held in the western city of Herat.
The Taliban has said women will be able to continue their education and work outside the home, which was denied them when the militants were last in power, but the Taliban has also vowed to impose Shari'a, or Islamic law.
Meanwhile, a BBC correspondent reported coming across a beauty salon whose owner said he had been ordered to paint over the women's faces displayed on its shop front.
The European Union laid out its conditions for stepping up engagement with the Taliban, saying it has no plans to recognize Afghanistan's new government, once announced, but it will engage with the Taliban-led administration on an "operational" basis.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a news conference that the 27-nation bloc will coordinate its contacts with the Taliban through a joint EU presence in Kabul to oversee evacuations and to ensure that the incoming government in Kabul fulfils commitments on security and human rights.
A Pakistani official said the government planned to send security and intelligence officials to Kabul to help the Taliban reorganize the Afghan military “in order for them to control their territory," amid concerns about a potential rise in Islamic State attacks along the border with Afghanistan.
"Whether we recognize the Taliban government or not, stability in Afghanistan is very important,” the official, who has direct knowledge of the country's security decisions, told Reuters.
The Kabul airport has remained shut since August 31 after the United States fully withdrew its troops following a 20-year presence, but international efforts are under way to resume operations there to facilitate humanitarian assistance and further evacuations.
A senior manager with Afghanistan’s flag carrier Ariana Afghan Airlines told AFP on September 3 that domestic flights were set to resume later in the day.
"We have received a green light from the Taliban and aviation authorities and plan to start flights today," Tamim Ahmadi told the news agency.
The United States and its allies were able to evacuate more than 123,000 foreigners and Afghans from Kabul since August 14, the day before the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan two decades after being removed from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
But tens of thousands of Afghans who had helped Western nations oust the militants during the long war and others at risk remained behind.
The militants have promised to allow Afghans to travel freely in and out of the country, but many remain in doubt about the group's intentions.
With Kabul airport still closed, many Afghans were seeking to flee over land, with large crowds reported at the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan in recent days.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said last week that up to 500,000 Afghans could flee their homeland by year-end.
But UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said the numbers of Afghan nationals fleeing across the borders to Pakistan and Iran "remain small," without giving a figure.
"So far what we have not seen is a large refugee influx," Baloch told a Geneva news briefing from Islamabad.
Separately, a top aide to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that a first group of some 250 Afghan evacuees will arrive to the Central European country on September 3 from Germany.
Michal Morawiecki said Poland will temporarily host a total of some 500 Afghan evacuees who had worked for NATO in Afghanistan.
The Afghans will remain in Poland for up to three months before moving on to other countries. But up to 50 of them will be able to settle in Poland, depending on their choice, according to Dworczyk.
In a positive development, Western Union and MoneyGram have announced they would resume money-transfer services to Afghanistan, allowing vital remittances into a war-torn country that has been reliant for years on foreign aid.
The opening of the money-transfer services will be especially welcomed by Afghans with foreign relatives abroad since hundreds of people have been lining up daily outside Afghan banks to withdraw cash up to a limit of $200 per week. Cash machines, meanwhile, aren't working.
However, the U.S. administration has no plans to release billions of dollars in Afghan gold, investments, and foreign currency reserves that the United States froze following the Taliban takeover.