In a swift and stunning rout, Taliban fighters seized control of Afghanistan’s capital Sunday, completing their sweep of the besieged nation as the Afghan government collapsed after two decades of U.S. efforts to reshape the region as part of its “war on terror.”
Embattled President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban entered the capital city of Kabul, and American troops scrambled to evacuate thousands of U.S. diplomats and Afghans from the U.S. Embassy.
The Taliban, which had been on the outskirts of Kabul for hours, announced soon after it would move farther 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 prepared to pull their people out.
The Pentagon authorized an additional 1,000 U.S. troops to be deployed to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation efforts, said a defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly. That is on top of the 5,000 troops that President Joe Biden announced Saturday would be sent to ensure “an orderly and safe” drawdown and evacuate U.S. personnel, as well as Afghans who helped American forces.
The Taliban is likely to declare the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the presidential palace in Kabul, an official told The Associated Press. The Al-Jazeera network broadcast footage of Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace, sitting behind a desk that the network presumed was Ghani’s and placing their guns on it.
In Washington, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met via videoconference with their national security team to hear updates on the evacuation of civilian personnel and allies who worked alongside the U.S. government during the 20-year war.
On Sunday evening, a joint statement from the State and Defense departments said the U.S. is working to secure Kabul’s airport to allow for departures, and would take over air traffic control with added troops on the ground.
“Tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals. And we will accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas, nearly 2,000 of whom have already arrived in the United States over the past two weeks,” the statement reads.
An exit reminding some of Saigon
America’s longest war began after the terror attacks Sept. 11, 2001, plotted by al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden, who was harbored by the Taliban government. A U.S.-led invasion forced the Taliban to retreat.
For some, the U.S. pullout was a reminder of America’s ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, which ended with images of U.S. helicopters evacuating Americans from the roof of the embassy in Saigon.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken flatly rejected such comparisons. “This is manifestly not Saigon,” Blinken argued, characterizing the removal of embassy and other personnel as “very deliberate.”
Still, analysts predicted that history would view the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as a failure.
“On Day One, we go in, and the Taliban is in charge. Twenty years later, the Taliban is back in charge,” said Jack Weinstein, a former Pentagon official and expert on international security.
“I don’t know how you couch that as a victory,” he said.
Though Kabul had been expected to fall, the speed of its collapse clearly caught the Biden administration off-guard.
Biden set a deadline of Aug. 31 to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and bring an end to the 20-year conflict. Last week, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
Defying expectations, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in a short time, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the United States and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces. The Afghans were defeated by the Taliban or fled much of the country, even though they had some air support from the U.S. military.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned Sunday the security situation was deteriorating and instructed American citizens to “shelter in place” amid reports of gunfire at the airport. American troops were in the midst of evacuating all diplomatic staff from the embassy to the airport as the Taliban entered Kabul.
Ghani flew out of the country, according to multiple media outlets.
He offered an explanation in a Facebook post Sunday: “Today, I came across a hard choice; I should stand to face the armed Taliban who wanted to enter the palace or leave the dear country that I dedicated my life to protecting and protecting the past twenty years. … The Taliban have made it to remove me, they are here to attack all Kabul and the people of Kabul. In order to avoid the bleeding flood, I thought it was best to get out.”
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, criticized Ghani’s exit. “The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” Abdullah said. “God should hold him accountable.”
Afghans fearing that the Taliban would reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings, the AP reported.
Taliban remained strong
For years, U.S. and Afghan forces focused on controlling supply chains and major cities, forcing the Taliban into Afghanistan’s rugged hinterland. The Taliban remained strong in the mountainous rural areas, using those regions as bases of attack to seize territory once U.S. forces left.
The Taliban remained in control of strategic border crossings, according to The Associated Press, smuggling weapons and supplies while rejuvenating forces outside the country.
In February 2020, Washington under President Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban that limited direct military action against the insurgents. That allowed the fighters to gather strength and move quickly to seize areas when Biden announced his plans to withdraw all American forces by the end of this month.
Taliban awaits ‘peaceful transfer of Kabul city’
Sunday, Taliban negotiators in the capital discussed the transfer of power, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, according to AP.
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; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami political and paramilitary group; and Abdullah, who has been a vocal critic of Ghani.
Karzai, with his three daughters, appeared in a video, 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.
Taliban returns: Many fear it will again end Afghan human rights, support terrorism
Afghanistan’s acting defense minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, lashed out at Ghani.
“They tied our hands from behind and sold the country,” he wrote on Twitter. “Curse Ghani and his gang.”
Taliban fighters tried to calm residents of the capital, insisting they wouldn’t enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses. They 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, according to AP.
Reports of brutality across Afghanistan
There have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country the Taliban have seized. One female journalist, weeping, sent voice messages to colleagues after armed men entered her apartment building and banged on her door.
“What should I do? Should I call the police or Taliban?” Getee Azami cried. It wasn’t clear what happened to her after that.
Many rushed to the Kabul airport, the last route out of the country after the Taliban took every border crossing. NATO said it was “helping to maintain operations at Kabul airport to keep Afghanistan connected with the world.”
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 unsure whether she’ll be able to graduate in two months. “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.”
Sunday began with the Taliban seizing 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 took the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces, as well as the country’s last government-held border post.
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.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Taliban expected to declare Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan