By AHMAD SEIR, RAHIM FAIEZ, TAMEEM AKHGAR and JON GAMBRELL
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – The Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital on Sunday after the government collapsed and the beleagured president joined an emigration of his fellow citizens and foreigners, signaling the end of a costly two-decade US campaign to rebuild the country.
Heavily armed Taliban fighters flew over the capital, and several entered Kabul’s abandoned presidential palace. 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.”
Earlier, a Taliban official said the palace group would announce the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of the country under Taliban rule, before the militants were driven out by US-led forces in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. . , which was orchestrated by al-Qaeda while under the protection of the Taliban. But that plan seemed to be on hold.
Kabul panicked. Helicopters ran 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 feared that the Taliban could reintroduce the kind of brutal rule that virtually eliminated women’s rights, and rushed to leave the country, lining 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 to let Americans take shelter and not try to get to the airport.
Commercial flights were suspended after sporadic gunfire at Kabul airport, according to two senior U.S. military officials. Evacuations continued on military flights, but stops for commercial traffic closed one of the last available routes for fleeing Afghans.
Dozens of nations urged all parties involved to respect and facilitate foreigners and Afghans wishing to travel.
More than 60 nations published the joint statement distributed by the U.S. State Department late Sunday night Washington time. The declaration states that those in power and authorities throughout Afghanistan “bear responsibility – and accountability – for the protection of human life and property and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order.”
The statement of the nations also says that roads, airports and border crossings must remain open and that calm must be maintained.
Many people watched in disbelief as helicopters landed at the U.S. Embassy to take diplomats to a new outpost at the airport. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons with US withdrawal from Vietnam.
“This is obviously not Saigon,” he said on ABC’s This Week.
The U.S. ambassador was among those evacuated, officials said. He asked to return to the embassy, but it was not clear if he would be allowed. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.
When the rebels closed in, 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, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council and a longtime rival to Ghani. “God should hold him accountable.”
Ghani later wrote on Facebook that he traveled to ward 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 20 years building Afghan security forces. Just days earlier, a U.S. military assessment estimated that the capital would not come under pressure from rebels for a month.
The fall of Kabul marks the last chapter in the United States’ longest war, which began after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A US-led invasion displaced the Taliban and repulsed them, but America lost focus on the conflict in the chaos of the Iraq war.
For years, the United States sought an exit from Afghanistan. Then-President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 that limited 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.
“They tied our hands from behind and sold the land,” he wrote on Twitter. “Connect Ghani and his gang.”
The Taliban previously insisted that their fighters would not enter people’s homes or interfere in businesses, saying they would offer “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 conquered in recent days. 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. She said her generation “hopes 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 conquering Jalalabad, the last major city besides the capital that was 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 Writer Kathy Gannon in Guelph, Canada; Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem; Matthew Lee in Washington; James LaPorta in Boca Raton, Florida; Aya Batrawy in Dubai; and Frank Jordans of Berlin contributed to this report.