Afghanistan’s embattled president has left the country, joining his fellow citizens and foreigners in a stampede fleeing the advancing Taliban and signalling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, confirmed in an online video that President Ghani had left on Sunday.
“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” Abdullah said. “God should hold him accountable.”
Ghani flew out of the country, two officials told The Associated Press news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief journalists. Local media reported that Ghani left for Tajikistan.
Abdullah said he wants security forces to continue providing security for Kabul and asked the Taliban to wait for talks before entering the city.
But the Taliban, which for hours had been on the outskirts of Kabul, announced soon after that they would move further into a city gripped by panic throughout the day as helicopters raced overhead to evacuate personnel from the US embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
Civilians fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country as well, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings. The desperately poor – who had left homes in the countryside for the hoped-for safety in the capital – remained in their thousands in parks and open spaces throughout the city.
In a stunning rout, the Taliban has captured 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals since August 6, despite the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO over nearly 20 years 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 the Taliban pressure.
Instead, the Taliban swiftly 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.
On Sunday, the Taliban reached the outskirts of Kabul but apparently remained outside the city’s downtown. Sporadic gunfire echoed at times though the streets were largely quiet.
Transfer of power
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Al Jazeera that the group is “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 negotiators were in Kabul on Sunday to discuss the transfer of power, an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals told the AP. 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 and Abdullah. Abdullah has been a vocal critic of Ghani, who long refused to give up power to get a deal with the Taliban.
Ghani appeared increasingly isolated before fleeing the country. The strongmen he negotiated with just days earlier have surrendered to the Taliban or fled, leaving him without a military option. Negotiations in Doha, the capital of Qatar – the site of a Taliban office – have failed to stop the group’s advance.
Still, acting Defence Minister Bismillah Khan sought to reassure the public that Kabul would remain “secure”. The Taliban also tried to calm residents of the capital, insisting their fighters would not enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses. They also said they would offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
“No one’s life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk,” the group said in a statement.
But there have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country the Taliban has seized in recent days.
Afghan officials said the Taliban also took the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces on Sunday.
Taliban fighters also seized the land border with Pakistan at Torkham, the last not in their control, on Sunday. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told local broadcaster Geo TV that Pakistan halted cross-border traffic there after the Taliban seized it.
Later, Afghan forces at Bagram airbase, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. The prison at the former US base held Taliban and ISIL (ISIS) group fighters.