Taliban Set to Retake Afghanistan After 20 Years in Shadows
(Bloomberg) -- Taliban leaders marched into Kabul on Sunday, preparing to take full control of Afghanistan two decades after they were removed by the U.S. military.
The militant group said it has occupied the presidential palace, and plans to soon declare a new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Hours earlier, American-backed President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The Al Jazeera network broadcast what it said were live images of armed Taliban fighters roaming the presidential palace and posing at desks.
Ghani said on his Facebook page that he left Afghanistan to avoid bloodshed. “In order to avoid the bleeding flood, I thought it was best to get out,” he said, according to an automated translation of his comments.
Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, confirmed Ghani’s departure on Facebook. Local media reported he was bound for neighboring Tajikistan along with some close aides.
Hamid Karzai, Afghan president from 2004 to 2014, said Sunday that that he, Abdullah and others would form a coordinating council to manage a peaceful transfer of power. The mechanism of such a handover was unclear given the Taliban’s occupation of all major cities and the government’s collapse.
The Taliban swept through Afghanistan in a matter of weeks, taking world leaders by surprise as they entered a vacuum created by departing U.S. and NATO forces working against the Aug. 31 deadline imposed by U.S. President Joe Biden to end America’s longest war.
In many cases the militants encountered little or no resistance from Afghan’s U.S.-trained military. Key provincial centers close to Kabul and in far-flung corners of the nation fell in quick succession.
Skies over Kabul buzzed on Sunday with U.S. military helicopters ferrying passengers from the U.S. embassy. The American flag at the embassy was lowered, the Associated Press reported. Afghanis lined up for cash and many headed to the airport, desperate to book a flight out of the country.
“We’re relocating the men and women of our embassy to a location at the airport,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on ABC. “That’s why the president sent in a number of forces to make sure that, as we continue to draw down our diplomatic presence, we do it in a safe and orderly fashion.”
The acting U.S. ambassador was among those evacuated to the airport, the AP reported. The U.S. embassy said on its website that the airport was taking fire, and advised U.S. citizens to shelter in place.
CNN reported earlier that the U.S. will pull out all embassy personnel by Tuesday, leaving a small core of staff to operate from the airport. The embassy reported the airport was taking fire late Sunday, and instructed U.S. citizens to shelter in place.
To many, images of helicopters over Kabul were an echo of the American departure from Saigon in 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War.
Blinken rejected that analogy. “This is not Saigon. We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago, with one mission, and that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11, and we’ve succeeded,” he said on CNN.
Top Biden administration officials briefed members of Congress on Sunday, many of whom were furious about the visible chaos to end a campaign that’s cost about 2,400 American lives and close to $1 trillion.
“This disaster, the catastrophe that we’re watching unfold right now across Afghanistan, did not have to happen,” said Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, whose father, then-Vice President Dick Cheney, was one of the architects of the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Briefing lawmakers, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin defended the administration’s actions. The Taliban planned to attack U.S. troops had they stayed past the announced deadline, he said, according to two people familiar with the call.
Taliban fighters reached the outskirts of Kabul early on Sunday after a three-week offensive. Just a day earlier, they were estimated to have seized about half of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals.
The militant group now controls all of Afghanistan’s border crossings, the AP said, leaving Kabul’s airport as the only way out of the country.
The Taliban has sought to reassure the country and the world that it will act responsibly as it prepares to resume power, following the swift collapse of the Afghan army.
Biden on Saturday boosted the U.S. troop deployment in an attempt to ensure an “orderly and safe drawdown.” The authorization adds about 1,000 U.S. personnel to the deployment of 3,000 Marines and soldiers announced this week and 1,000 troops already at the airport and the embassy, according to a defense official.
Biden again defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after 20 years.
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan -- two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
‘Watching in Horror’
Thousands of Afghanis fled to Kabul in the face of the Taliban advance as the crisis threatened to spill outside the country’s borders and send waves of refugees as far afield as Europe.
People also flocked to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport airport hoping to catch a flight out. “We’re expecting to be evacuated -- I hope we’ll be out in a few days,” Emir Sayit, a Turkish civil engineer, said by phone on Sunday.
Russia has seized on the chaotic situation to criticize the U.S. “The world is watching in horror the results of Washington’s latest historical experiment,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a Telegram post Sunday. Russia said it’s not planning to evacuate its embassy in Kabul, with Tass quoting a Taliban spokesman saying the group has good relations with Moscow.
Biden has faced mounting criticism from human rights groups and some members of his own party, as reports emerge the Taliban is already bringing a return to attacks on women and other abuses reminiscent of its earlier rule. Social media posts on Sunday showed images of woman on Kabul buildings being painted over, apparently in advance of the Taliban’s return.
“We watch in complete shock as Taliban takes control of Afghanistan,” Malala Yousafzi, a Pakistani activist and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, said on Twitter.
Taliban and Women
During Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, women were prohibited from working, attending high school or appearing in public without a burqa, a garment that covers the wearer’s entire body, head, and face. In recent weeks, Taliban fighters in northern areas told some female employees of branches of Afghanistan International Bank to leave work and go home.
Late Saturday, the Taliban released a lengthy statement denying reports that it had killed prisoners and forced villagers to hand over their daughters to marry Taliban soldiers. In the statement, the group said it would respect public property, redeploy bureaucrats and military officers, and provide amnesty for anyone who “helped the invaders.”
In other developments:
- Afghan troops surrendered Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, which the U.S. handed over to Afghanistan last month after almost 20 years, the AP reported.
- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called an emergency meeting of top-level officials, known as the Cobra committee, warning that Afghanistan can’t be allowed to become a “breeding ground for terror.”
- Turkey’s president warned of a flood of migration likely from those fleeing Afghanistan.
- Neighboring Iran said Sunday it will give temporary refuge to Afghans.
- Sweden joined the U.K., Germany, Canada, Italy, Australia and other countries in announcing plans to pull diplomats, and in some cases local support staff, out of Afghanistan.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.