Kabul’s streets were once again busy with traffic on Wednesday morning, with residents — most of them men — out and about. And while not all shops were open, basic services were up and running. Bakeries were making bread, and food and fuel were available to buy.
Armed Taliban fighters were certainly still around, patrolling the city in pickup trucks, but there were far fewer checkpoints operating, compared to recent days. Roadblocks that had been manned by dozens of fighters appeared to have been abandoned, the flow of people and vehicles less restricted than in previous days.
The lighter presence of the Taliban in the streets of the Afghan capital on Wednesday was somewhat in line with the group’s push to paint a new, less intimidating picture of themselves.
Taliban leaders have been been saying for days that ordinary Afghans are not in danger now that they’ve taken over the country, urging government employees to return to work.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Tuesday promised that there would be no retribution against those who had opposed the Taliban in the past.
Chaos and desperation
But while Kabul’s city center appeared calm on Wednesday, the streets surrounding its airport were in chaos. Traffic was gridlocked, cars queuing bumper to bumper.
For days, thousands of Afghans have been crowding around Hamid Karzai International Airport, hoping to get out of the country they believe has become too dangerous for them.
Stuck 200 yards (182 meters) down the road, the man was desperately pointing to his phone, waving an email from the US embassy telling him what to do.
“I have a flight on August 20, this Friday, I already filled up the application with the US embassy and this is the email I got,” the man told CNN, speaking in perfect English with a slight American accent.
“The Taliban say: ‘We don’t know, just go’ … They say we don’t have flights … but we do have flights,” he said.
Shots could be heard coming from the direction of the airport nearly non-stop, as Taliban fighters fired their weapons to disperse the crowds trying to get inside the airport’s perimeter; the Taliban were forcing them back, using sticks and makeshift whips to push people away.
The airport is the only way out for the thousands of Western personnel and their Afghan colleagues who are still stranded, three days after the Taliban took Kabul.
Roughly 4,500 US troops remain on the ground at the airport, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. He said the airport “remains secure and open for flight operations.”
Yet just outside its gates, chaos appears to be increasingly turning into violence.