Taliban rebels reach Kabul after lightning offensive; militants say they are in talks with government for surrender; American diplomats being evacuated by helicopter; eastern city of Jalalabad falls without a fight; Islamist group seeks to project more moderate image
The Taliban said they had taken over the Afghan Presidential Palace hours after entering the Afghan capital Kabul even as diplomats and locals hurried to leave the country.
There is no confirmation from the Afghan officials of the Taliban takeover.
The hardline Islamists have swiftly taken over the country, taking large swathes of land under its control since May this year.
Both President Ashraf Ghani and his deputy, Vice-President Amarullah Saleh, left Afghanistan earlier on Sunday after the Taliban announced it was on the outskirts of the city and was negotiating a peaceful surrender with the Western-backed government.
The Taliban’s swift advances come as countries across the world emptied their embassies and hurried to fly out diplomats, sensitive papers, and equipment.
Any hopes of a repeat of 2001 vanished after the northern citadels manned largely by non-Pashtuns also folded up to the Taliban. Its warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed Noor, fled the country claiming a conspiracy to trap and kill them.
Taliban fighters began moving towards Kabul following the overnight collapse of the two remaining cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad.
Sources here said the airport was still open and that civilian flights are still allowed to land. But India has on standby military transporters if the security situation worsens.
American diplomats were evacuated from their embassy by chopper after a lightning advance by the militants, who were poised to run Afghanistan again 20 years after they were toppled by US-led forces following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Ali Ahmad Jalali, a US-based academic and former Afghan interior minister, could be named head of an interim administration in Kabul, three diplomatic sources said, though it was unclear whether the Taliban had agreed.
Known during their past rule for keeping girls out of school and their hardline practice of Islamic law, including punishments of amputation, stoning, and hanging, the Taliban appear to be trying to project a more modern face.
Another spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the group would protect the rights of women, as well as freedoms for media workers and diplomats.
“We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe,” Shaheen told the BBC, saying a transfer of power was expected in days.
The ease of the Taliban’s advance, despite billions of dollars spent by the United States and others to build up local Afghan government forces, has stunned the world.
Just last week, a US intelligence estimate said Kabul could hold out for at least three months.
Power would be handed over to a transitional administration, the government’s acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, tweeted on the Tolo news channel. “There won’t be an attack on the city, it is agreed that there will be a peaceful handover,” he said without elaborating.
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 told Reuters by phone. Another said: “People are all going home in fear of fighting”.
Afghans had 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.
Asked for comment, the president’s office said it “cannot say anything about Ashraf Ghani’s movement for security reasons”. Up until Ghani and Saleh point when boarded the plane, the presidential palace had reiterated that it had the situation under control.
Choppers at embassy
US officials said diplomats were being ferried by helicopters 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 surge brought the Islamist group to Kabul in a matter of days.
“Core” US team members were working from the airport, a US official said, while a NATO official said several European Union staff had moved to a safer location in the capital.
Earlier on Sunday, 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 still in government hands.
“The governor has surrendered to the Taliban,” a Jalalabad-based Afghan official told Reuters. “Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives.” A video clip distributed by the Taliban showed people cheering and shouting “Allahu Akbar”—God is greatest— as a convoy of pickup trucks entered Jalalabad with fighters brandishing machine guns and the white Taliban flag.
After US-led forces withdrew the bulk of their remaining troops in the last month, the Taliban campaign accelerated as the Afghan military’s defences appeared to collapse.
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.
The Taliban said its rapid gains showed it was popularly accepted by the Afghan people.
Biden said his administration had told Taliban officials in talks in Qatar that any action that put US personnel at risk “will be met with a swift and strong US military response”. He has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, to end the US military mission in Afghanistan by August 31.
“An endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me,” Biden said on Saturday.