Kabul: Afghanistan’s embattled president left the country 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 in 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 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.
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, the 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 just over a week, despite the 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.
On Sunday, the insurgents 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 spokesman 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.
Taliban negotiators were in Kabul on Sunday to discuss the transfer of power, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. 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 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.
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.
Still, acting Defense 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 there have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country the Taliban have seized in recent days.
And 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 Sunday, 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. (AP)