Taliban sweep into Kabul after Afghan government collapses
Canada among several Western missions pulling their people out of Afghanistan
The Taliban swept into Afghanistan's capital on Sunday after the government collapsed and the embattled president joined an exodus of his fellow citizens and foreigners, signalling the end of a costly two-decade U.S. campaign to remake the country.
Heavily armed Taliban fighters fanned out across the capital, and a group of fighters entered the presidential palace in Kabul. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson and negotiator, told The Associated Press that the militants would hold talks in the coming days aimed at forming an "open, inclusive Islamic government."
Earlier, a Taliban official said the group would announce from the palace the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of the country under Taliban rule before the militants were ousted by U.S.-led forces in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The attacks were orchestrated by al-Qaeda while it was being sheltered by the Taliban. But that plan appeared to be on hold.
Kabul was gripped by panic. Helicopters raced overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents and the American flag was lowered. Several other Western missions, including Canada, also pulled their people out.
Fearful that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women's rights, Afghans 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.
More than 60 countries issued a joint statement saying Afghans and international citizens who want to leave Afghanistan must be allowed to depart and added airports and border crossings must remain open, the U.S. State Department said late Sunday.
The U.S. government and more than 60 other countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Qatar and the United Kingdom said in the statement that "those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility — and accountability — for the protection of human life and property, and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order."
"The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. We in the international community stand ready to assist them," the statement read.
'This is manifestly not Saigon,' Blinken says
Though the Taliban had promised a peaceful transition, the U.S. 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 later suspended after sporadic gunfire erupted at the airport, according to two senior U.S. military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. Evacuations continued on military flights, but the halt to commercial traffic closed off one of the last routes available for Afghans fleeing the country.
Many people watched in disbelief as helicopters landed in the U.S. Embassy compound to take diplomats to a new outpost at the airport. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the U.S. pullout from Vietnam.
"This is manifestly not Saigon," he said on ABC's This Week.
The U.S. ambassador was among those evacuated, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing military operations. He was asking to return to the embassy, but it was not clear if he would be allowed to.
As the insurgents closed in Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country.
"The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation," Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, said. "God should hold him accountable."
Ghani later posted on Facebook that he had chosen to leave the country to avert bloodshed in the capital, without saying where he had gone.
Taliban's swift takeover
As night fell, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition. Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the upscale diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.
In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in over a week, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the U.S. 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 the U.S.'s longest war, which began after the Sept. 11 attacks masterminded by al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, at the time harboured by the Taliban government. A U.S.-led invasion dislodged the Taliban and beat them back, though the U.S. lost focus on the conflict in the chaos of the Iraq War.
For years, the U.S. has been looking for an exit from the war. Washington under then-president Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that limited direct military action against the insurgents. 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 insurgents entered Kabul, Taliban negotiators discussed a transfer of power, said an Afghan official. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-doors negotiations, described them as "tense."
It remained unclear when that transfer would take place and who among the Taliban was negotiating. The negotiators on the government side included former president Hamid Karzai, leader of Hizb-e-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, while the roar of a passing helicopter could be heard overhead.
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."
The Taliban earlier insisted their fighters wouldn't enter people's homes or interfere with businesses and said they'd offer an "amnesty" to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
'You failed the younger generation of Afghanistan'
But there have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country the Taliban have seized in recent days — and the reports of gunfire at the airport raised the spectre of more violence. One female journalist, weeping, sent voice messages to colleagues after armed men entered her apartment building and banged on her door.
"What should I do? Should I call the police or Taliban?" Getee Azami cried. It wasn't clear what happened to her after that.
Many chose to flee, rushing to the Kabul airport, the last route out of the country as the Taliban now hold every border crossing. NATO said it was "helping to maintain operations at Kabul airport to keep Afghanistan connected with the world."
Crowds packed the international airport in Kabul in a chaotic scene after Taliban insurgents entered the Afghan capital and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed <a href="https://t.co/neLGwErN3a">https://t.co/neLGwErN3a</a> <a href="https://t.co/hmZqmMy90t">pic.twitter.com/hmZqmMy90t</a>—@Reuters
One Afghan university student described feeling betrayed as she watched the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy.
"You failed the younger generation of Afghanistan," said Aisha Khurram, 22, who is now unsure of whether she'll be able to graduate in two months' time. "A generation ... raised in the modern Afghanistan were hoping to build the country with their own hands. They put blood, efforts and sweat into whatever we had right now."
Sunday began with the Taliban seizing the nearby city of Jalalabad — which had been the last major city besides the capital not in their hands. Afghan officials said the militants also took the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces, as well as the country's last government-held border post.
Later, Afghan forces at Bagram air base, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. The prison at the former U.S. base held both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.
With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters