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WASHINGTON – U.S. military evacuation flights resumed from Afghanistan Tuesday as the Taliban held their first press conference since taking power by declaring "amnesty" for government officials and vowing to uphold women's rights under Islamic law.
The statements are a dramatic departure from when the Taliban fundamentalist group last held power before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Women virtually had no rights under Taliban's oppressive rule. Most women were forced to quit their jobs and stay at home and lost access to education and health care, enduring high rates of both illiteracy and maternal mortality.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said they were working to form a government and vowed that "nobody will be harmed."
Jake Sullivan, President Biden's national security adviser, said the U.S. has tools – including sanctions, international condemnation and isolation – to make sure the Taliban keeps that pledge.
“This is not about trust," Sullivan told reporters. "This is about verify.”
While Sullivan said his heart goes out to Afghan women and girls, he argued the choice was not between saving or abandoning them. Deciding to keep a U.S. military force in the country would have come with it's own human costs for American soldiers.
“These are the choices a president has to make," he said.
Another hard choice was whether to provide the Afghan government with military equipment to fight off the Taliban. After the nation fell to the Taliban without much of a fight, a "fair amount" of that equipment is now in Taliban hands, Sullivan said.
‘No possible life’ under Taliban rule: Afghan women fear murder, oppression after US withdrawal
Mujahid said the Taliban's aim, he said, is to make sure "Afghanistan is no longer a battlefield of conflict."
"We have pardoned all those who have fought against us. Animosities have come to an end," he said. "We do not want to have any problems with the international community."
However, interpreters, drivers and others who helped U.S. and NATO forces fear the Taliban will "slaughter" them, viewing them as traitors.
As recently as May, a bombing at a girls’ school in Kabul killed dozens, many of them students between 11 and 15. Though the Taliban denied responsibility, the Afghan government blamed them.
DESPERATION: With life at risk, Afghan interpreter shares videos
Mujahid also said the militant group is "committed to the rights of women under the system of sharia (Islamic) law," but emphasized they could work and study "within our frameworks."
"They are going to be working shoulder to shoulder with us. We would like to assure the international community that there will be no discrimination," he said.
However, the Taliban regime was known for particularly violent enforcement of draconian codes. For instance, women seen in public without a male relative or wearing a burqa could be raped, abducted and forced into marriage. Women who were raped could also be executed.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan doesn’t want the women to be the victims anymore,” said Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission.
Mujahid also said private media could continue be to independent but said journalists "should not work against national values."
Evacuation flights from Kabul underway
Many Afghans remain so fearful of Taliban rule that they rushed departing planes. Chaos unfolded just a day earlier at Hamid Karzai International Airport, where thousands desperate to flee the country forced the U.S. and other countries to halt the evacuation of diplomats and Afghan civilians who assisted American troops.
The airport is back open and as many as 800 people have been evacuated overnight, including 165 U.S. citizens, said Army Gen. William Taylor, an official on the Joint staff.
U.S. military commanders in Kabul are communicating with Taliban officials outside the international airport to allow for the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghans, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday.
Kirby declined to characterize the discussions but said “the results are speaking for themselves.”
Evacuation flights could carry as many as 9,000 people out of Afghanistan per day, Taylor said. The airport has been secured by American Marines and soldiers, and more than 4,000 troops will be on the ground by the end of Tuesday, he added.
Biden's remarks draw bipartisan criticism; $500M pledged for refugees
The first comments about how the militant group said it plans to govern come as President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops despite the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.
The president returned to Camp David, the Maryland presidential retreat, and stayed largely out of view as he drew bipartisan criticism for the administration's handling of the evacuations.
Following his remarks, the White House announced Biden allocated $500 million from the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund to assist refugees fleeing Afghanistan.
The additional funds will be used to meet "unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan, including applicants for Special Immigrant Visas," according to the White House.
Kirby told ABC's "Good Morning America" the U.S. vowed to meet "our moral and sacred obligations" to allied Afghans.
“We plan on being on the ground there in Afghanistan for the next couple of weeks,” Kirby said during an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “It’s not just about moving out Americans. It is very much about meeting our moral and sacred obligations to those Afghans who helped us over the last 20 years, getting as many of them out as we can.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are due to brief reporters later Tuesday.
Contributing: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Taliban holds press conference on sharia law amid Afghanistan takeover