KABUL – Afghanistan’s president left the country on Sunday, joining Afghans and foreigners in a stampede fleeing the Taliban’s advance, marking the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at reshaping the country.
The Taliban, who had been on the outskirts of Kabul for hours, announced soon after that they would advance further into a city in a panic all day, with helicopters passing overhead to evacuate US embassy staff. Smoke rose near the compound as employees destroyed important documents. Several other Western missions are also withdrawing their personnel.
Civilians, fearing the Taliban would re-impose the kind of brutal government that almost wiped out women’s rights, scrambled to leave the country too, queuing at ATMs to withdraw their life savings.
The poorest, who had left their homes in the countryside believing the capital was safer, stayed by the thousands in parks and open spaces all over Kabul.
Two officials told The Associated Press, on condition of anonymity, that President Ashraf Ghani has left the country out of the country.
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed in an online video that Ghani had left.
The former Afghan president left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation. Abdullah said.
In a stunning offensive, the Taliban captured nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the United States has invested over nearly two decades to bolster Afghan security forces. Just days ago, a US military analysis estimated that it would be a month before the capital came under pressure from the rebels.
The Taliban have defeated, recruited, or fled Afghan security forces in most parts of the country, despite the fact that the US military has provided some air support to the Afghan government.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Qatar’s English-language Al Jazeera television that the insurgents were “waiting for a peaceful transfer of power from the city of Kabul.” He declined to give details of possible negotiations with the government.
However, when asked what kind of deal the Taliban want, Shaheen acknowledged that they are seeking unconditional surrender from the central government.
Taliban negotiators were heading to the presidential palace to agree on the transfer of power, according to an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. It is not yet clear when that handover will take place.
An official said government negotiators included former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. Abdullah has publicly criticized President Ghani, who has long refused to step down in order to reach a deal with the Taliban.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the details of the closed-door negotiations as “tense.”
The acting defense minister, Bismillah Khan, tried to reassure residents that the capital would remain “safe”. The rebels also tried to pacify the city’s residents and indicated that their fighters would not enter people’s homes or interfere with their business. They also announced an “amnesty” for those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
“No one’s life, property or dignity will be harmed, and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be in danger,” the group said. The Taliban also warned that no one should enter the area around the capital.
Despite the promises, panic began to spread and many people rushed to leave the country via Kabul airport, the last way out of the country after the Taliban seized all border crossings.
The United States began quick connecting flights from its embassy with Chinook helicopters hours after militants seized the nearby city of Jalalabad, the only major city outside Kabul they had not captured. Several diplomatic armored vehicles left the US headquarters area.
The US State Department did not initially respond to questions about the movements. However, plumes of smoke were seen near the embassy roof as diplomats quickly destroyed sensitive documents, according to two US military sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the situation. A few hours later, smoke rose in the area where embassies from other countries are located.
Subsequently, several Black Hawk helicopters, often used to transport troops, also landed near the embassy. At least one combat helicopter hovered overhead, while helicopters fired flares to repel possible missile fire. A few days ago, the United States decided to send thousands of soldiers to help evacuate embassy workers.
At Kabul International Airport, Afghan forces abandoned the airport to Western military personnel, according to a pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity to address security issues.
Ghani, who spoke to the country on Saturday for the first time since the offensive began, appears increasingly isolated. Several of the military leaders he negotiated with just days before surrendered to the Taliban, leaving Ghani without military options. Open negotiations in Qatar, where the rebels have an office, also failed to stop the offensive, as thousands of civilians fled to Kabul.
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