Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has reportedly fled Kabul as the Taliban prepared to seize power across the country.
Some Taliban fighters entered the capital on Sunday while most waited for orders on the outskirts, as tribal elders negotiated a transitional government to replace the collapsed Western-backed government.
Thousands of US and UK troops have arrived at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport over the last 24 hours to establish a final, likely temporary, diplomatic redoubt to help remove diplomats, aid workers, and tens of thousands Afghans employed by the defeated government and its foreign backers. US officials have signalled that there would be no final push to save a government established 20 years ago after a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks.
“This is not Saigon,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told CNN on Sunday morning, as images of US diplomats and their panicked local colleagues fleeing the fall of an American allied capital by helicopter dominated the news coverage and sparked comparisons with the end of the Vietnam war.
In the last few days the Taliban have overrun the last remaining government-held cities in Afghanistan. The rapid takeover of the entire country in about a week of only occasionally bitter fighting witnessed orderly surrenders of government security forces and government centres that appear to have been quietly organised in advance by Taliban intelligence agents, who convinced much of the country to surrender based on promises of a peaceful transition to power and broad amnesties for the defeated parties.
Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told the Al Jazeera English news channel that the militants are “awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul,” and implied that the Taliban were demanding an unconditional surrender. Other Taliban leaders were said to be negotiating with former President Hamid Karzai and longtime Northern Alliance leader Abdullah Abdullah.
“Something happened behind the scenes to dump Ghani and avoid the bloody civil war,” said a European diplomatic consultant, who messaged from the tamrac of Kabul airport waiting for an evacuation flight.
“He’s going to claim he was betrayed but it's clear he was dumped by the rest of Afghanistan,” said the consultant, who declined to be named as they remain in Kabul for now. “The estimates that the government could hold out for 90 days before the Taliban won were probably accurate but everyone decided to try and skip that bloodshed by dumping Ghani.”
Asked if the peaceful nature of the power transfer would hold as the Taliban appeared to promise, the consultant said there was no way to know.
“And I don’t think any of us really feel like waiting around to find out,” they said.
Multiple news organisations reported that Ghani had flown to neighbouring Tajikistan on Sunday, hours after Taliban fighters amassed on the outskirts of Kabul, and a day after Mazar Sharif, the government’s last northern stronghold, fell. On Saturday, two top militia allies, including Gen Rashid Dostum, who had been tasked with defending Mazar Sharif and Kabul, fled to Uzbekistan, claiming to have been betrayed by tribal elders who arranged the surrender of local government forces.
That pattern of government forces withdrawing to airports or government centres before surrendering in tribally negotiated arrangements continued Saturday as the last provincial capital held by the government, Jalalabad, fell to the Taliban with little fighting.
The US, UK and their NATO allies now face a crashing effort to secure escape for thousands of translators and former workers likely to be targeted for revenge killings by the Taliban. This will be operated from the impromptu diplomatic facility being established by US Marines and UK Paratroopers at the international airport. US government officials expect the embassy to be completely evacuated by Tuesday at the latest, according to reports.