KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan’s crisis-stricken president left the country on Sunday, joining thousands of his fellow citizens and foreigners in a stampede fleeing the advancing Taliban and signaling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at rebuilding the country.
The Taliban flew over the capital, and a group of warriors entered the presidential palace in Kabul. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman and negotiator, told the Associated Press that the militants would hold talks in the coming days with the aim of forming an “open, inclusive Islamic government.”
A Taliban official previously said the group would announce the creation of the Islamic Emirate Afghanistan from the palace, but those plans appeared to have been put on hold. It was the name of the country under Taliban rule before the militants were driven out by US-led forces after the 9/11 attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
RELATED: Biden: 5,000 soldiers will deploy to Afghanistan to ensure ‘orderly and secure’ withdrawal
The city, meanwhile, was gripped by panic, with helicopters running overhead all day to evacuate staff from the U.S. Embassy. Smoke rose near the building as staff destroyed important documents and the U.S. flag was lowered. Several other Western missions were also preparing to pull their people out.
Afghans, fearing that the Taliban could reintroduce the kind of brutal rule that virtually eliminated women’s rights, hurried to leave the country and lined up at ATMs to raise their life savings. The desperately poor – who had left home in the countryside for the capital’s supposed security – remained in parks and open areas throughout the city.
Although the Taliban had promised a peaceful transition, the US embassy suspended operations and warned late in the day that Americans should take shelter and not try to get to the airport.
Commercial flights were suspended after sporadic gunfire at the airport, according to two senior U.S. military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. Evacuations continued on military flights, but the halt to commercial traffic closed one of the last available routes for Afghans fleeing the country.
TOPSHOT – Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15, 2021. (Photo by – / AFP via Getty Images)
Still, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons with the US withdrawal from Vietnam, as many watched in disbelief at the sight of helicopters landing in the embassy area to take diplomats to a new outpost at Kabul International Airport.
“This is obviously not Saigon,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The U.S. ambassador was among those evacuated, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing military operations. He asked to return to the embassy, but it was not clear if he would be allowed.
As the rebels closed on Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country.
“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan and left the country in this difficult situation,” said Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council. “God should hold him accountable.”
Ghani later wrote on Facebook that he had chosen to leave the country to stave off bloodshed in the capital without saying where he had gone.
As night fell, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts, promising to maintain law and order during the transition. Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the exclusive diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.
In an astonishing route, the Taliban captured almost all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars the United States and NATO spent over nearly two decades building Afghan security forces. Just a few days earlier, a U.S. military assessment estimated that it would be a month before the capital would come under pressure from rebels.
The fall of Kabul marks the last chapter of the United States’ longest-running war, which began after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which was carried out by al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, then housed by the Taliban government. A US-led invasion displaced the Taliban and repulsed them, even though America lost focus on the conflict in the chaos of the Iraq war.
RELATED: Taliban fighters occupy Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s 4th largest city
For years, the United States has been looking for an exit to the war. Washington under then-President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 that restricted direct military action against the rebels. It allowed fighters to gather strength and move quickly to conquer key areas, as President Joe Biden announced his plans to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of this month.
After the rebels entered Kabul, Taliban negotiators discussed a transfer of power, an Afghan official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the details of the closed-door negotiations, described them as “tense”.
It remained unclear when this transfer would take place and who among the Taliban negotiated. Negotiators on the government side included former President Hamid Karzai, leader of Hizb-e-Islami’s political and paramilitary group Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and Abdullah, who has been a vocal critic of Ghani.
Karzai himself appeared in a video posted online with his three young daughters around him, saying he remained in Kabul.
“We are trying to resolve the issue of Afghanistan with the Taliban leadership peacefully,” he said.
Afghanistan’s acting defense minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, did not hold back his criticism of the fleeing president.
RELATED: The Taliban seize another 4 cities in the flow of southern Afghanistan
“They tied our hands from behind and sold the land,” he wrote on Twitter. “Curse Ghani and his gang.”
The Taliban previously insisted that their fighters would not enter people’s homes or interfere in companies, saying they would offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
But there have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country that the Taliban have captured in recent days – and reports of gunfire at the airport raised the specter of more violence. A female journalist, crying, sent voice messages to colleagues after gunmen entered her apartment building and knocked on her door.
“What should I do? Should I call the police or the Taliban?” Getee Azami cried. It was not clear what happened to her after that.
An Afghan university student described feeling betrayed when she saw the evacuation of the US Embassy.
“You failed the younger generation of Afghanistan,” said Aisha Khurram, 22, who is now unsure whether she will be able to graduate in two months. “A generation … raised in modern Afghanistan was hoping to build the country with their own hands. They put blood, effort and sweat into everything we had right now.”
Sunday began with the Taliban capturing the nearby city of Jalalabad – which had been the last major city besides the capital not in their hands. Afghan officials said the militants also seized the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces, as well as the country’s last government-controlled border post.
Later, Afghan forces at Bagram Air Base, home to a prison that houses 5,000 prisoners, surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. Imprisoned at the former U.S. base, both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters held.
Akhgar and Faiez reported from Istanbul and Gambrell from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Guelph, Canada, Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem and James LaPorta and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.