Politics

As Taliban enter Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flees the country


Afghanistan’s embattled President, Ashraf Ghani, has fled the country as the Taliban moves further into Kabul, officials say.

His countrymen and foreigners alike raced for the exit on Sunday, signalling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.

Mr Ghani flew out of the country, two officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorided to brief journalists. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed Mr Ghani had left in an online video.

People walk near a mural of President Ashraf Ghani at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. As a Taliban offensive encircles the Afghan capital, there’s increasingly only one way out for those fleeing the war, and only one way in for U.S. troops sent to protect American diplomats still on the ground: the airport. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) (AP)

“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” Mr Abdullah said.

“God should hold him accountable.”

Taliban fighters entered Kabul earlier on Sunday and sought the unconditional surrender of the central government, officials said.

The beleaguered central government had sought an interim administration, but increasingly had few cards to play.

Civilians fearing the Taliban could reimpose a brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings. Helicopters buzzed overhead, some apparently evacuating personnel at the US Embassy.

A US Chinook helicopter flies over the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) (AP)
An Afghan Man sells the flags of Talleban in Herat province West of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug 14, 2021. (AP Photo/ Hamed Sarfarazi) (AP)

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 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 Taliban has defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swathes of the country, even though they had some air support from the US military.

On Sunday, they entered the outskirts of Kabul but apparently remained outside of the city’s downtown. Sporadic gunfire echoed at times though the streets were largely quiet.

Workers fled government offices, and smoke rose over the city as embassy staff burned important documents.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Qatar’s Al-Jazeera English satellite news channel 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, Mr Shaheen acknowledged they were seeking an unconditional surrender by the central government.

A passenger walks to the departures terminal of Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) (AP)
Map shows areas controlled by Taliban. (Associated Press)

Taliban negotiators headed to the presidential palace on Sunday to discuss the transfer, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. 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. Mr Abdullah has been a vocal critic of President Ashraf Ghani, who 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.”

Acting Defence Minister Bismillah Khan sought to reassure the public that Kabul would remain “secure.”

The insurgents also tried to calm residents of the capital, insisting 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.

“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.

But they also warned no one to enter the area around the capital.

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 — which had been the last major city besides the capital not in Taliban hands.

Diplomatic armoured SUVs could be seen leaving the area around the post.

US Black Hawk military helicopters fly over the city of Kabul. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) (AP)
Smoke rises next to the US Embassy in Kabul. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) (AP)

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 nation’s 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.

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.

Mr 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 him without a military option. Ongoing negotiations in Qatar, the site of a Taliban office, also have failed to stop the insurgents’ advance.

Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Farah, south-west of Kabul. (AP Photo/Mohammad Asif Khan) (AP)
Members of Joint Forces Headquarters get prepared to deploy to Afghanistan to assist in the draw down from the area. (LPhot Ben Shread/MoD/Crown Copyright via AP) (AP)

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. Mr Murad said there was no fighting as the city surrendered.

The militants took also Maidan Shar, the capital of Maidan Wardak, on Sunday, only some 90km from Kabul, Afghan lawmaker Hamida Akbari and the Taliban said.

Another provincial capital in Khost also fell to the Taliban, said a provincial council member who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Afghan officials said the capitals of Kapisa and Parwan provinces also fell.

The militants also took the land border 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 militants seized it.

Later, Afghan forces at Bagram air base, home to a prison housing 5000 inmates, 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.



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