KABUL: Afghanistan’s embattled president Ashraf Ghani left the country on Sunday, joining foreigners and locals in a stampede fleeing the advancing Taliban.
A Taliban official said they would soon announce the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the presidential palace in Kabul. That was the name of the country under Taliban rule before they had been ousted by the US-led forces some two decades ago.
The city was gripped by panic, with helicopters racing overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the US embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents, and the American flag was lowered. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
Afghans fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings. The desperately poor who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital remained in parks and open spaces throughout the city.
Though the Taliban promised a peaceful transition, the US embassy suspended operations and warned Americans late in the day to shelter in place and not try to get to the airport. Commercial flights were suspended for some time after sporadic gunfire erupted at the airport, according to two senior US military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. Evacuations continued on military flights.
However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the US pullout from Vietnam, as many watched in disbelief at the sight of helicopters landing in the embassy compound to take diplomats to a new outpost at Kabul airport.
“This is manifestly not Saigon,” he said on ABC’s This Week. The American ambassador was among those evacuated, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, President Ghani flew out of the country. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, said: “The former president left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation. God should hold him accountable.”
Ghani later posted on Facebook that he had chosen to leave the country to “prevent a flood of bloodshed”, as the Taliban entered the capital, capping a lightning offensive across the country. Without disclosing where he had gone, Ghani claimed he believed “countless patriots would be martyred and the city of Kabul would be destroyed” if he had stayed behind. “The Taliban have won… and are now responsible for the honour, property and self-preservation of their countrymen,” he added.
As night fell, Taliban fighters were deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition.
Reuters quoted two senior Taliban commanders in Kabul as claiming that the insurgents entered the presidential palace and took control of it. Al Jazeera TV later showed footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the palace with dozens of armed fighters.
The Taliban claimed they had taken control of most of the districts around the outskirts of the capital. In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces. Just days earlier, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
The fall of Kabul marks the final chapter of America’s longest war, which began after the 9/11 attacks. For years, the US has been looking for an exit for the war. Washington under then-President Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that limited direct military action against them. That allowed the fighters to gather strength and move quickly to seize key areas when President Joe Biden announced his plans to withdraw all American forces by the end of this month.
After the Taliban entered Kabul, their negotiators discussed a transfer of power, said an Afghan official. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-door negotiations, described them as ‘tense’.
The negotiators on the government side included former president Hamid Karzai, leader of Hizb-i-Islami political and paramilitary group Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and Abdullah, who has been a vocal critic of Ghani.
Karzai himself appeared in a video posted online, his three young daughters around him, saying he remained in Kabul. “We are trying to solve the issue of Afghanistan with the Taliban leadership peacefully,” he said.
Afghanistan’s acting defence minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, didn’t hold back his criticism of the fleeing president. “They tied our hands from behind and sold the country,” he wrote on Twitter. “Curse Ghani and his gang.”
Sunday began with the Taliban seizing the nearby city of Jalalabad that had been the last major city besides the capital not in their hands. Afghan officials said the Taliban also took the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces, as well as the country’s last government-held border post.
The Afghan forces at Bagram Air Base, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, later also surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. The prison at the former US base held both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.