August 15, 2021 | Kabul, Afghanistan | ABC News – Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country as Taliban insurgents have moved into the capital Kabul, and the United States is evacuating staff from its embassy by helicopter.
- The eastern city of Jalalabad fell without a fight
- The Taliban have made a week-long nationwide advance across Afghanistan
- The Taliban say their fighters are on standby around Kabul until a “peaceful and satisfactory transer of power is agreed”
The beleaguered President’s departure came after top-level talks with American officials at the US embassy in Kabul.
An unnamed Afghan Interior Ministry official told Reuters Mr Ghani has gone to Tajikistan.
In Kabul, the Taliban ordered its fighters to enter the city to prevent looting in the wake of local police deserting their posts, according to the militant group.
The statement by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid came shortly after the President fled the country. Earlier, a senior official said the Taliban were coming into Kabul “from all sides” but gave no further details.
Shortly after that announcement the US Embassy in Kabul suspended all operations and told Americans to shelter in place, saying it had received reports of gunfire at the international airport.
“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place,” a US Embassy security alert said.
At the airport hundreds of Afghans, some of them government ministers and government employees and also other civilians including many women and children, crowded in the terminal desperately waiting for flights out.
“The airport is out of control… the (Afghan) government just sold us out,” said an official at the scene who declined to be named for security reasons.
Bagram air base taken
An Afghan official said forces at Bagram air base, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, had surrendered to the Taliban.
Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi said the surrender handed the one-time American base over to the insurgents. The prison housed both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.
Mr Mujahid said in a statement the group was in talks with the government for a peaceful surrender of Kabul.
The Afghan government signalled there were negotiations underway to avoid bloodshed in capital, and to give the Taliban control.
“The Afghan people should not worry … there will be no attack on the city and there will be a peaceful transfer of power to the transitional government,” Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal said in a recorded speech.
Panic strikes Kabul
More than 40 people were wounded in clashes on the outskirts of Kabul, a hospital in the Afghan capital said on Twitter after Taliban fighters entered the city.
“Most (people brought to the hospital) came from fighting in the #Qarabagh area,” it said, without giving any further details of the clashes.
It made no reference to any fatalities.
The entry into the capital caps a lightning advance by the Islamist militants, who were ousted 20 years ago by the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
The collapse of the Afghan government defence has stunned diplomats. Just last week, a US intelligence estimate said Kabul could hold out for at least three months.
Many of Kabul’s streets were choked by cars and people either trying to rush home or reach the airport, residents said.
“Some people have left their keys in the car and have started walking to the airport,” one resident said by phone.
Another said: “People are all going home in fear of fighting.”
US officials said diplomats were being ferried by helicopter to the airport from its embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district.
More American troops were being sent to help in the evacuations after the Taliban’s lightning advances brought the Islamist group to Kabul in a matter of days.
“Core” US team members were working from the Kabul airport, a US official said, while a NATO official said several EU staff had moved to a safer, undisclosed location in the capital.
Move into Kabul follows capture of Jalalabad
Earlier on Sunday local time, the insurgents captured the eastern city of Jalalabad without a fight, giving them control of one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan.
They also took over the nearby Torkham border post with Pakistan, leaving Kabul airport the only way out of Afghanistan that is still in government hands.
The capture of Jalalabad followed the Taliban’s seizure of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif late on Saturday, also with little fighting.
“There are no clashes taking place right now in Jalalabad because the Governor has surrendered to the Taliban,” a Jalalabad-based Afghan official said.
“Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives.”
A video clip distributed by the Taliban showed people cheering and shout Allahu Akbar — God is greatest — as a convoy of pickup trucks entered the city with fighters brandishing machine guns and the white Taliban flag.
After US-led forces withdrew the bulk of the their remaining troops in the last month, the Taliban campaign accelerated as the Afghan military’s defences appeared to collapse.
US President Joe Biden on Saturday authorised the deployment of 5,000 US troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an “orderly and safe” drawdown of military personnel.
A US defence official said that included 1,000 newly approved troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Taliban fighters entered Mazar-i-Sharif virtually unopposed as security forces escaped up the highway to Uzbekistan, about 80km to the north, provincial officials said.
Unverified video on social media showed Afghan army vehicles and men in uniforms crowding the iron bridge between the Afghan town of Hairatan and Uzbekistan.
Two influential militia leaders supporting the government — Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum — also fled. Mr Noor said on social media that the Taliban had been handed control of Balkh province, where Mazar-i-Sharif is located, due to a “conspiracy.”
Taliban says it is popularly accepted
In a statement late on Saturday, the Taliban said its rapid gains showed it was popularly accepted by the Afghan people and reassured both Afghans and foreigners that they would be safe.
The Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban calls itself, “will, as always, protect their life, property and honour, and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” it said, adding that diplomats and aid workers would also face no problems.
Afghans have fled the provinces to enter Kabul in recent days, fearing a return to hardline Islamist rule.
Early on Sunday, refugees from Taliban-controlled provinces were seen unloading belongings from taxis and families stood outside embassy gates, while the city’s downtown was packed with people stocking up on supplies.
Hundreds of people slept huddled in tents or in the open in the city, by roadsides or in car parks, a resident said on Saturday night. “You can see the fear in their faces,” he said.
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.
Mr Biden said his administration had told Taliban officials in talks in Qatar that any action that put US personnel at risk would “be met with a swift and strong US military response.”
He has faced rising domestic criticism as the Taliban have taken city after city far more quickly than predicted.
The president has stuck to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, to end the US military mission in Afghanistan by August 31.
Mr Biden said it was up to the Afghan military to hold its own territory.
“An endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me,” Mr Biden said on Saturday.
Qatar, which has been hosting so-far inconclusive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, said it had urged the insurgents to cease fire.
Mr Ghani has given no sign of responding to a Taliban demand that he resign as a condition for any ceasefire.