President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan on Sunday, a top official said, effectively ceding power to the Taliban, who have entered the capital Kabul and reportedly captured the presidential palace to seal a nationwide military victory in just 10 days.
Ghani flew out of the country, two officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorised to brief journalists. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed Ghani had left in an online video.
“He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable,” Abdullah said.
Major developments today
- Ashraf Ghani flees Afghanistan
- Taliban say they will not take Kabul “by force”
- Taliban negotiators head to presidential palace to discuss transfer of power
- Taliban spokesperson says they are seeking an unconditional surrender from the govt
- Helicopters begin landing on US Embassy for evacuation
- Taliban seize Jalalabad
Reuters quoted a senior interior ministry official as saying that Ghani "has left the capital Kabul for Tajikistan". It is unclear whether Ghani has resigned from the post of president.
In a video posted on Facebook, Abdullah, speaking in Persian, appealed to the Afghan security forces to do their part to maintain peace in the country. He also appealed to the Taliban to not harm anyone or cause disharmony in Kabul. He said Ghani had left the country in troubling times, for which he will be remembered in history.
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.”
Ghani later said he had fled the country to “prevent a flood of bloodshed”.
In a statement posted to Facebook, he said he believed “countless patriots would be martyred and the city of Kabul would be destroyed” if he had stayed behind.
Ghani's countrymen and foreigners alike also raced for the exit, signalling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.
Two senior Taliban commanders present in Kabul told Reuters the insurgents had taken control of the presidential palace.
Some Taliban leaders, surrounded by dozens of armed fighters, addressed the media from the country’s seat of power, Al Jazeera reported.
Al Jazeera also showed footage of a Taliban fighter taking down the Afghan flag, folding it up and placing it on a mantlepiece.
'Worsening security at airport'
The US Embassy in Kabul said the security situation at the Kabul airport was changing quickly, and that there were reports of gunfire as US troops aided the evacuation of US personnel.
"There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place," the embassy said in a security alert.
A source familiar with the situation could not confirm reports of firing there.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said earlier on Sunday that embassy staff were leaving the diplomatic compound and moving to the airport as Taliban insurgents entered Kabul.
Diplomats were being ferried by helicopter to the airport, where US troops were providing security amid an exodus of Americans and their local allies and other foreigners.
'No transitional government'
After entering Kabul earlier today, Taliban fighters sought the unconditional surrender of the central government.
The beleaguered government, meanwhile, hoped for an interim administration, but increasingly had few cards to play. Civilians fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings.
Two Taliban officials told Reuters there would be no transitional government in Afghanistan and that the group expects a complete handover of power.
The Taliban ordered their fighters to enter Kabul to prevent looting after local police deserted their posts, a spokesman for the militant group, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement.
In a nationwide offensive that has taken just over a week, the Taliban have defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swaths of the country, even though they had some air support from the US military.
The lightning speed of the push has shocked many and raised questions about why Afghan forces crumbled despite years of US training and billions of dollars spent. Just days ago, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
On Sunday, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Qatar’s Al-Jazeera English satellite news channel that the insurgents are “awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul city”. He declined to offer specifics on any possible negotiations between his forces and the government.
But when pressed on what kind of agreement the Taliban wanted, Shaheen acknowledged that they were seeking an unconditional surrender by the central government.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the group was in talks with the Western-backed government for a peaceful surrender. "Taliban fighters are to be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed," he said in a statement.
Ali Ahmad Jalali, a US-based academic and former Afghan interior minister, could be named head of an interim administration in Kabul, three diplomatic sources said, though it was unclear whether the Taliban had agreed.
For his part, Afghanistan's Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal said the government will enter into talks with the Taliban for the peaceful transition of power.
In a video statement shared on Twitter, Mirzakwal said, "As the Minister of Interior of Afghanistan, I ordered all security forces, special forces and other personnel to continue their duties in different places to ensure the security of the city. Our people should not worry. There is no security problem in the city at the moment."
He underlined that Kabul remains under government control and that the Taliban would not attack the city, adding that the transition of power would also happen peacefully for a transitional government to be set up.
Meanwhile, Taliban negotiators headed to the presidential palace to discuss the transfer, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity. It remained unclear when that transfer would take place.
The negotiators on the government side included former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, an official said. Abdullah has long been a vocal critic of Ghani, who has refused giving up power to get a deal with the Taliban.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-doors negotiations, described them as “tense”.
Meanwhile, acting Defence Minister Mohammadi sought to reassure the public in a video message.
“Authority has been given to a delegation that will be going to Doha (Qatar) tomorrow to reach an agreement on Afghanistan,” he said. “I assure you about the security of Kabul.”
Earlier, the insurgents also tried to calm residents of the capital.
“No one’s life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk,” the insurgents said in a statement.
Panic in Kabul
Despite the pledges, panic set in as many rushed to leave the country through the Kabul airport, the last route out of the country as the Taliban now hold every border crossing. Rapid shuttle flights of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters near the embassy began a few hours later after the militants seized the nearby city of Jalalabad. Diplomatic armoured SUVs could be seen leaving the area around the post.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the movements. However, wisps of smoke could be seen near the embassy’s roof as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, according to two American military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the situation. The smoke grew heavier over time in the area, home to other nations’ embassies as well.
Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, which typically carry armed troops, later landed near the embassy as well. At least one attack helicopter could be seen overhead as helicopters launched flares to distract possible missile fire. The US decided a few days ago to send in thousands of troops to help evacuate some personnel from its embassy.
At Kabul International Airport, Afghan forces abandoned the field to Western militaries, said a pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security matters. An Afghan flight earlier landed at the airport from Kandahar loaded with troops who surrendered to the Taliban, even after taking shrapnel damage from a mortar attack, the pilot said.
President Ashraf Ghani, who spoke to the nation on Saturday for the first time since the offensive began, appears increasingly isolated as well. Warlords he negotiated with just days earlier have surrendered to the Taliban or fled, leaving Ghani without a military option. Ongoing negotiations in Qatar, the site of a Taliban office, also have failed to stop the insurgents’ advance.
Thousands of civilians now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul itself, fearing the future. While Kabul appeared calm on Sunday, some ATMs stopped distributing cash as hundreds gathered in front of private banks, trying to withdraw their life savings.
Insurgents posted photos online early on Sunday showing them in the governor’s office in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province.
Abrarullah Murad, a lawmaker from the province told The Associated Press that the insurgents seized Jalalabad after elders negotiated the fall of the government there. Murad said there was no fighting as the city surrendered.
The fall on Saturday of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, handed the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan.
Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, two of the warlords Ghani tried to rally to his side days earlier, fled over the border into Uzbekistan on Saturday, said officials close to Dostum. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorised to publicly speak about his movements.
Writing on Twitter, Noor alleged a “conspiracy” aided the fall of the north to the Taliban, without elaborating.
“Despite our firm resistance, sadly, all the government and the Afghan security forces equipment were handed over to the Taliban as a result of a big organised and cowardly plot,” Noor wrote. “They had orchestrated the plot to trap Marshal Dostum and myself too, but they didn’t succeed.”
In his speech on Saturday, Ghani vowed not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
Meanwhile, Pakistan said it was "closely following the unfolding situation" in Afghanistan, and would continue to support the efforts for a political settlement.
Peace talks continue
The US has continued holding peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week, and the international community has warned that a Taliban government brought about by force would be shunned. But the insurgents appear to have little interest in making concessions as they rack up victories on the battlefield.
“We have started consultations, inside the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community as well as our international allies,” Ghani said. “Soon the results will be shared with you,” he added, without elaborating further.
On Sunday, Nato said finding a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan was more pressing “than ever”.
“We support Afghan efforts to find a political solution to the conflict, which is now more urgent than ever,” an official at the 30-nation alliance told AFP.
Many Afghans fear a return to the Taliban’s oppressive rule. The group had previously governed Afghanistan under a harsh version of Islamic law in which women were forbidden to work or attend school, and could not leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them.
Salima Mazari, one of the few female district governors in the country, expressed fears about a Taliban takeover on Saturday in an interview from Mazar-e-Sharif, before it fell.
“There will be no place for women,” said Mazari, who governs a district of 36,000 people near the northern city. “In the provinces controlled by the Taliban, no women exist there anymore, not even in the cities. They are all imprisoned in their homes.”
In a statement late on Saturday, however, the Taliban insisted their fighters wouldn’t enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses. They also said they’d offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
“The Islamic Emirate once again assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honour and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” the insurgents said. “In this regard, no one should worry about their life.”
Despite the pledge, those who can afford a ticket have been flocking to Kabul International Airport, the only way out of the country.
UK parliament recalled to discuss crisis
British lawmakers were being called back from their summer break to parliament to discuss the worsening situation in Afghanistan.
Authorities said on Sunday that parliament will be recalled for one day on Wednesday to debate the government’s response to the crisis. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also called a meeting of his cabinet’s emergency committee on Sunday.
Like other Nato allies, Britain began withdrawing its remaining troops from Afghanistan after US President Joe Biden announced in April that the US was leaving by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, would be airlifted out of Afghanistan by Monday evening. The Foreign Office declined to comment on the report.
The defence ministry said last week that Britain was sending 600 troops to Afghanistan to help evacuate remaining UK citizens and Afghans who worked with British forces in the country.