KABUL: Taliban insurgents entered Kabul and regained control of Afghanistan on Sunday, 20 years after the US-led invasion that ousted them.
In chaotic scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam war, American diplomatic staff were airlifted by helicopter from the US Embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district of the Afghan capital.
As Taliban fighters took over the presidential palace, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and was thought to be in Tajikistan. Afghans on social media branded him a “coward.”
Ghani said he left to “prevent a flood of bloodshed” and that “countless patriots would be martyred and the city of Kabul would be destroyed” if he had stayed behind.
“The Taliban have won with the judgement of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honor, property and self-preservation of their countrymen,” he said in a Facebook post.
He did not say where he had travelled to, but leading Afghan media group Tolo news suggested he had gone to Tajikistan.
Kabul’s streets were choked with cars and people trying to reach the airport. “Some people have left their keys in the car and have started walking to the airport,” one resident said
Hundreds of Afghans, some of them government ministers and government employees, along with civilians including many women and children, crowded into the terminal building at Kabul airport waiting for flights out.
“The airport is out of control … the Afghan government just sold us out,” one official in the building said. A NATO official said the alliance was helping to secure the airport and that a political agreement was “now more urgent than ever.”
A Kabul hospital said it was treating more than 40 people wounded in clashes on the outskirts of the city, but the Taliban takeover appeared to be largely bloodless and there was no major fighting.
The Taliban said it was waiting for the government to surrender peacefully. “Taliban fighters are on standby atall entrances to Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
The government’s acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, said power would be handed over to a transitional administration. “There won’t be an attack on the city, it is agreed that there will be a peaceful handover,” he said.
Another Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said a transfer of power was expected in days. “We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe,” he said.
The speed of the Taliban advance in the past two weeks has stunned Western powers, as city after city fell to the insurgents with little resistance from Afghan government forces, trained and equipped by the US and others at a cost of billions of dollars.
President Joe Biden has faced mounting criticism for adhering to his predecessor Donald Trump’s plan to end the US military mission in Afghanistan by Aug. 31. “An endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me,” Biden said.