Afghan President Leaves Country As Taliban Surrounds Kabul
By RFE/RL's Radio Azadi August 15, 2021
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has left country as the Taliban entered the outskirts of the capital, the only major city left in government hands.
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, confirmed Ghani's departure from Kabul in a video message on Facebook.
The militants have vowed not to take the capital by force, as talks with senior officials were said to be under way on a peaceful transfer of power.
Ghani has reportedly flown to neighboring Tajikistan, several officials told the media on condition of anonymity.
Afghanistan's acting interior minister, Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, said in a video message released on August 15 there would be a "peaceful" transfer of power to a transitional government.
An Afghan official told AP that Taliban negotiators were heading to the Presidential Palace for talks on a "transfer" of power on August 15. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals, said that the goal was a peaceful handing over of the government to the Taliban.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed to Radio Azadi there were talks under way for a peaceful handover of power. He did not offer more details.
Earlier on August 15, the insurgents took control of the key eastern city of Jalalabad less than 24 hours after seizing the major northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, leaving the Afghan capital as the last major urban area under government control.
The loss of the two cities were back-to-back blows for President Ashraf Ghani, who addressed the nation in a televised speech on August 14, vowing not to give up the "achievements" of the 20 years since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
As of August 15, the insurgents were in control of 28 out of 34 provincial capital in the war-torn country.
In Kabul, there were reports of queues at the airport of people trying to flee and of hundreds of police and other armed services members abandoning their posts.
Amid fears of a security vacuum, Ghani urged what remains of his security forces to maintain law and order as thousands of police and other armed services members have reportedly abandoned their posts.
"It is our responsibility and we will do it in the best possible manner," Ghani said in a video message released to media on August 15.
The Taliban said it had no plans to take Kabul "by force" and instructed its fighters to stay at the gates of the city. Spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC that the group expected a peaceful transition of power in the next few days.
The militant Islamist group would protect the rights of women, as well as freedoms for media workers and diplomats, he said, adding, "We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe."
The rapid advance of the Taliban has raised particular concerns about what it might mean for Afghanistan's women. In Kabul, the head of Afghan news service Tolo News, Lotfullah Najafizada, tweeted an image of a man covering up pictures of women painted on a wall.
Meanwhile, efforts to evacuate diplomats and international staff appeared to be accelerating, with some reports saying that helicopters could be seen shuttling to and from the U.S. mission, along with armored vehicles.
U.S. troops began arriving in Kabul the previous day to protect the evacuation operation and keep control of the airport.
North of Kabul, the Taliban on August 15 captured the Bagram air base, the largest military base in the country and home to a prison housing thousands of inmates, without resistance.
"As the Taliban entered the military base, Afghan forces left the base, and Bagram airport is now under Taliban control," General Nawidullah Mirzayee, commander of Bagram air base, told Radio Azadi.
The Taliban took control of Jalalabad early on August 15 without a fight, cutting off Kabul to the east. The militants posted photos online showing themselves in the governor's office in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province.
Abrarullah Murad, a lawmaker from Nangarhar Province, told AP that the insurgents seized Jalalabad after elders negotiated the fall of the government there.
The loss of Jalalabad and Mazar-e Sharif are back-to-back blows for Ghani, who addressed the nation in a televised speech on August 14, vowing not to give up the "achievements" of the 20 years since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The militants took also Maidan Shar, the capital of Maidan Wardak, only some 90 kilometers from Kabul, a provincial council member told Radio Azadi.
The Taliban has made rapid gains over the last week, sweeping through the country as U.S.-led forces withdraw and pressuring Afghanistan's government.
The offensive accelerated in the last week, shocking Western governments as the Afghan military's defenses appeared to collapse. The United States and Britain are deploying additional troops to help evacuate their citizens and Afghans who worked for them.
The chain of events prompted U.S. President Joe Biden on August 14 to authorize the deployment of 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.
They are in addition to about 3,000 troops approved on August 12 to ensure an "orderly and safe" drawdown of U.S. military personnel. They will join more than 650 personnel already in Kabul that have remained in the country to maintain diplomatic security.
Biden announced the additional troops in a statement that also defended the rapid U.S. pullout and argued against prolonging the U.S. mission.
"Over our country's 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in US history," he said.
"One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me," he said.
In his August 14 speech to the nation, Ghani said consultations had started inside the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community, and international allies.
"Soon the results will be shared with you," he added, without elaborating further.
Earlier on August 14, Taliban fighters overran Sharana, capital of southeastern Paktika Province, and later captured Asadabad, the capital of eastern Kunar Province as well.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes, many fearing a return to the Taliban's oppressive rule. The group governed Afghanistan from 1996-2001, imposing a harsh version of Islamic law in which women were forbidden to work or attend school and could not leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them.
Salima Mazari, one of the few female district governors in the country, expressed fears about a Taliban takeover in an interview with AP from Mazar-e Sharif before it fell.
"There will be no place for women," said Mazari, who governs a district near the northern city. "In the provinces controlled by the Taliban, no women exist there anymore, not even in the cities. They are all imprisoned in their homes."
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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