The morning after the Taliban installed themselves in the presidential palace in Kabul, seizing control over Afghanistan two decades after being toppled from power by the U.S. military, fears intensified on Monday about a return to the Taliban’s brutal rule and the threat of reprisal killings.
The last pockets of resistance by Afghan forces appeared to be crushed early Monday as the Taliban claimed to defeat a unit of elite special forces to take control of the airport in Kandahar.
In Kabul, the international airport was under the protection of foreign forces, including thousands of U.S. soldiers sent to the country to assist in a hasty evacuation.
It was a scene of desperation, sadness and panic.
As thousands swarmed the departures lounge — many waiting in vain for flights that failed to arrive — reports of gunfire in and around the airport began to circulate.
The U.S. Embassy, whose core employees had moved to a military-controlled section of the airport, urged U.S. civilians still in Kabul to stay away.
“There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place,” the embassy said in a statement late Sunday.
Worries pervaded Kabul, the capital, about the potential for violence as the Taliban filled the city and the Afghan government crumbled. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the insurgents entered the city on Sunday.
In remarkable scenes broadcast on Al Jazeera, Taliban leaders ensconced themselves in the palace only hours after Mr Ghani fled — taking control over what was once one of the most secure locations in the country and a symbol of the nation that the United States spent so much money and sacrificed so much blood to uphold.
Though not a formal surrender, it might well have been.
In the video, the head of the Afghan presidential security guard shook hands with a Taliban commander in one of the presidential palace buildings and said he had accompanied the Taliban commander at the request of the senior Afghan government negotiator.
“I say welcome to them, and I congratulate them,” the official said.
Afghan officials in other cities were filmed handing over power to insurgent leaders. Former President Hamid Karzai said he had formed a council with other political leaders to coordinate a peaceful transition to a new Taliban government. Mr Karzai also asked the head of the Presidential Protection Service to remain at his post and ensure that the palace was not looted.
The presence of the United States, whose withdrawal from Afghanistan starting in May set off a Lighting fast-Taliban advance, was concentrated at the Kabul airport, one of the last parts of the city not in the insurgents’ hands.
Early Taliban actions in other cities under their control offered a glimpse of what the future might hold. In Kundz which fell on Aug. 8, they set up checkpoints and went door to door in search of absentee civil servants, warning that they would be punished if they did not return to work.
The change in atmosphere in Kabul was as swift as it was frightening for many who thought that they could build a life under the protection of their American allies.
Some in the city said the Taliban had already visited government officials’ homes. They entered the home of one former official in western Kabul and removed his cars and took over the home of a former governor in another part of town.
Residents of Kabul began tearing down advertisements that showed women without headscarves for fear of upsetting the Taliban, whose ideology excludes women from much of public life.
Some police officers were taken into custody by Taliban fighters, while others were seen changing into civilian clothes and trying to flee.
The Taliban said their forces had entered Kabul to ensure order and public safety.
A member of the Taliban’s negotiating team in Qatar told the BBC that “there will be no revenge” on civilians. “We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe,” Suhail Shaheen said on Sunday night. “There will be no revenge on anyone.”
KABUL, Afghanistan;The Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital Sunday after the government collapsed and the embattled president joined an exodus of his fellow citizens and foreigners, signalling the end of a costly two-decade U.S. campaign to remake the country.
Heavily armed Taliban fighters fanned out across 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 aimed at forming an “open, inclusive Islamic government.”
The people of Kabul were given reassurances that they would be safe, that a deal had been struck to avoid a full-fledged attack by the Taliban on their city. But for many Afghans, the scenes now playing out around them in their capital tell another story.
It was not just that their president had fled the country on Sunday. There were innumerable smaller signs that their world was changing.
Police posts have been abandoned, and the officers had shed their uniforms in favour of civilian garb. Posters of women at beauty salons were painted over — presumably to avoid retribution from Afghanistan’s new fundamentalist rulers. And on the east side of the city, inmates at Kabul’s main prison, many of them Taliban members, seized the opportunity to break out.
“This is the Day of Judgment,” declared one onlooker as he filmed the inmates carrying bundles of belongings away from the prison.
The Afghan interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal, said in the early afternoon that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul.
“We have ordered all Afghan National Security Forces divisions and members to stabilize Kabul,” he said in a video statement. “There will be no attack on the city. The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God willing, power will be transferred.”
Residents seemed unconvinced.
Many had fled to Kabul as their own cities fell. The capital, if nowhere else in their country, seemed that it might provide a haven for at least the near future.
But the future was nearer than almost anyone knew, and on Sunday, with the Taliban in Kabul, many people — among them President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials — were looking for an exit from the country itself.
Afghans and non-Afghans alike headed to the airport, where the scene was chaotic. Witnesses at the civilian domestic terminal said thousands of Afghans had crammed into the terminal and swarmed around planes on the tarmac, desperately seeking flights out.
With the evacuation of U.S. diplomats and some civilians underway on Sunday, helicopter after helicopter could be seen ferrying passengers to Kabul’s airport. But many Afghans could do little more than look on in despair.
The Taliban themselves appeared to be trying to strike a tone of reassurance. “Our forces are entering Kabul city with all caution,” they said in a statement.
But as the sunset behind the mountains, the traffic was clogged as crowds grew bigger. More and more Taliban fighters appeared on motorbikes, police pickups and even a Humvee that once belonged to the Afghan security forces.
With rumours rife and reliable information hard to come by, the streets were filled with scenes of panic and desperation. Some people posted videos of the chaos.
Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, filmed her own attempt to flee her neighbourhood and posted it on Facebook.
The video shows her fleeing on foot, out of breath and clutching at her headscarf as she urges people around her to get out while they can.
“Greetings,” she can be heard saying. “The Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping.”
TALIBAN PLANT FLAG;
With their seizure of Jalalabad on Sunday, followed hours later by their entry into Kabul, the capital, the Taliban effectively took control of Afghanistan. Planes departing the airport in Kabul were filled with people fleeing the country.
As their homeland fell once again into the hands of the Taliban, more than 300 Afghan Americans went to the White House on Sunday to make their frustrations known.
Demonstrators, some with young children and babies in strollers, spilt into Lafayette Square, wielding signs that read “Help Afghan kids” and “America betrayed us.”
Some held up the flag of Afghanistan. Others draped it over their shoulders. They stood in a circle around organizers who used bullhorns to get their message out.
“We want justice,” they declared.
Among those attending the three-hour protest was Sohaila Samadyar, a 43-year-old banker in Washington, who was there with her 10-year-old son. Ms Samadyar, who immigrated to America in 2000, said she wanted to raise awareness about Afghans still stuck in the country, like her brother and sister in Kabul.
Ms Samadyar said that she had voted for President Biden in November, but that she now regretted that decision, “disappointed” in his handling of the war.
“He has basically disregarded the Afghan community,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how fast everything has changed.”
Yasmeen Anwar, a 19-year-old sophomore in college, drove about three hours from Richmond, Va., with her friends and sister to attend the protest. Ms Anwar said she was concerned about the future of women and children in Afghanistan.
“Before, when America was in Afghanistan, there was hope in that we were fighting the Taliban and that they could finally be defeated after 20 years,” Ms Anwar said. “But by the Biden administration completely stepping out, it’s giving them no hope anymore.”
A first-generation Afghan American, Ms Anwar said she had always dreamed of visiting her family’s home country. She now doubts that she will be able to go.
“It just seems like we’re never going to get peace,” Ms Anwar said.
It was his first day as the Taliban-appointed mayor of Kunduz, and Gul Mohammad Elias was on a charm offensive.
Last Sunday, the insurgents seized control of the city in northern Afghanistan, which was in shambles after weeks of fighting. Power lines were down. The water supply, powered by generators, did not reach most residents. Trash and rubble littered the streets.