Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly leaves the country. Afghan delegation to meet Taliban in Qatar today, government negotiator says. U.S. Embassy being evacuated, other Western embassies preparing to get staff out. Afghan forces surrender Bagram air base to Taliban. Taliban negotiators heading to presidential palace, Afghan official says. Taliban fighters have entered Kabul. Gunfire heard in the capital. Taliban hold all border crossings, leaving Kabul International Airport as only way out. U.S. diplomats urgently destroying sensitive documents, military officials say.
Afghanistan’s embattled president left the country on Sunday, 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.
The Taliban, which for hours had been on the outskirts of Kabul, announced soon after they would move further into a city gripped by panic throughout the day, as helicopters raced overhead to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy.
Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull out their people.
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 the thousands in parks and open spaces throughout the city.
President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country, two officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief journalists. Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed in an online video that Ghani had left.
“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” Abdullah said. “God should hold him accountable.”
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.
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 U.S. military.
We watch in complete shock as Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates. Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.
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.
Taliban spokesperson 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.
Negotiations between Taliban, government
Negotiators with the Taliban and the Afghan government were expected to hold talks on Sunday, though it wasn’t immediately clear where they would be meeting.
An Afghan official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said Taliban negotiators were heading to the presidential palace to discuss the transfer of power. It remained unclear when that transfer would take place and who among the Taliban was negotiating.
Taliban fighters sit on a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on Sunday. 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. (AFP/Getty Images)
The negotiators on the government side included former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah of the Afghan reconciliation council, an official said. Abdullah has long 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.” 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.
Meanwhile, Fawzi Koofi, a member of the Kabul negotiating team, told Reuters that a government delegation, including Abdullah, will travel to the Gulf state of Qatar on Sunday to meet with representatives of the Taliban.
A source familiar with the matter told Reuters the Afghan delegation and Taliban representatives would discuss a transition of power, adding that U.S. officials would also be involved.
Ghani left without military option
Ghani appeared increasingly isolated before fleeing the country. Warlords he negotiated with just days earlier have surrendered to the Taliban or fled, leaving him without a military option.
Negotiations in Doha, Qatar, the site of a Taliban office, have failed to stop the insurgents’ advance.
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.”
WATCH | Taliban advances raise fears over women’s rights: Women’s rights threatened in AfghanistanTaliban advances are raising fears that women’s rights could be eliminated in Afghanistan. During their rule from 1996-2001, the Taliban closed schools for girls, and women were not allowed to work in most professions. 7:31
The insurgents 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.
But there have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country the Taliban have seized in recent days.
U.S. Embassy being evacuated
On Sunday, 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.
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.”
Rapid shuttle flights of helicopters near the U.S. Embassy began a few hours after the militants seized the nearby city of Jalalabad — which had been the last major city besides the capital not in Taliban hands.
A U.S. military helicopter flies above the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sunday. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
The U.S. decided a few days ago to send in thousands of troops to help evacuate some personnel, and two officials said Sunday that American diplomats were being moved from the embassy to the airport. Military helicopters shuttled between the embassy compound and the airport, where a core presence will remain for as long as possible given security conditions.
The officials, who were not authorized to discuss diplomatic movements, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, 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 authorized to discuss the situation.
The smoke grew heavier over time in the area, home to other nations’ embassies as well.
‘This is not Saigon’: Blinken
Speaking to CNN on Sunday morning, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to push back against any comparison between the Afghan withdrawal and the one that came after the Vietnam War, saying: “This is not Saigon.” However, he acknowledged the “hollowness” of the Afghan security forces.
“From the perspective of our strategic competitors around the world, there’s nothing they would like more than see us in Afghanistan for another five, 10, 20 years,” he said. “It’s simply not in the national interest.”
NATO, meanwhile, said it was “helping to maintain operations at Kabul airport to keep Afghanistan connected with the world.”
Pakistani soldiers check documents of stranded Afghan nationals returning to Afghanistan at a Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on Saturday. The Taliban now control all border crossings in the country. (AFP/Getty Images)
Low-cost carrier FlyDubai said it would temporarily suspend flights to Kabul. It turned around a flight to the capital on Sunday, as did Emirates. Emirates said an “unforeseen temporary closure of the runway” stopped it from landing.
Afghan officials said the militants also took the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces on Sunday.
The insurgents also seized the land border at Torkham, the last not in their control, on Sunday. Pakistani 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 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.
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