Afghanistan stands on the brink of a Taliban takeover on Sunday with sources close to President Ashraf Ghani saying a deal has been finalised and that he will make an official announcement of departure soon, News18 reported. Power will be handed over to third parties for now and no violence is occurring in Kabul at the moment, sources added.
Former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali is likely to head the transitional government, sources added. The Taliban has claimed that safe passage will be given to leaders in government including Ghani and Amrullah Salleh and that they have to decide their next move. "We are not ready for power-sharing," the group said while vowing not to do violence in Kabul.
This came just hours after an Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said Taliban negotiators were heading to the presidential palace.
Ghani, meanwhile, has urged the government forces to maintain law and order in the capital.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urges government forces to maintain law and order in capital Kabul: AFP
— ANI (@ANI) August 15, 2021
CNN, quoting a source at the Hamid Karzai airport, reported that a number of high-ranking Afghan officials, including Ghani's advisers, were waiting for a flight out with their destination not yet known.
A source at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul tells CNN a number of high-ranking Afghan officials, including some of President Ashraf Ghani’s advisers, have arrived and are waiting for a flight out. It's not clear where they're going.
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) August 15, 2021
Meanwhile, sources told ANI that India is closely monitoring the fast-changing situation in Afghanistan to decide on the evacuation of diplomatic personnel from Kabul.
People familiar with the development said the government will not put the lives of its staffers at the Indian embassy and Indian citizens in Kabul at any risk and plans have already been finalised in case they require emergency evacuation. "The government is closely monitoring the fast-paced developments in Afghanistan. We will not put the lives of our staff at the Indian embassy in Kabul at any risk," said one of the persons cited above.
Specifically asked when the Indian staffers and citizens in Kabul will be evacuated, they said decisions will depend on the ground situation. It is learnt that a fleet of the C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force is kept on standby to undertake evacuation missions.
Also on Sunday, Pope Francis said he shares “the unanimous concern for the situation in Afghanistan". He spoke as the Taliban entered the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital, and said they were awaiting a “peaceful transfer” of the city. From a window overlooking St. Peter's Square, the pope asked for prayers “so that the clamor of weapons may cease and solutions may be found at the negotiating table.”
He added that “only in this way, may the battered population of the country, men and women, elderly and children, return to their homes and live in peace and safety, with full mutual respect.”
Residents race to leave Kabul
Back in Kabul, panicked residents raced to leave, with workers fleeing government offices and helicopters landing at the US Embassy in scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
In a nationwide offensive that has taken just over a week, the Taliban has defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swaths of the country, even though they had some air support from the US military.
On Sunday, they reached Kabul. Three Afghan officials told The Associated Press that the Taliban were in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman in the capital.
Later, Afghan forces at Bagram airbase, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. The prison housed both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.
The lightning speed of the push has shocked many and raised questions about why Afghan forces crumbled despite years of US training and billions of dollars spent. Just days ago, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Qatar’s Al-Jazeera English satellite news channel that the insurgents are “awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul city.” He declined to offer specifics on any possible negotiations between his forces and the government.
But when pressed on what kind of agreement the Taliban wanted, Shaheen acknowledged that they were seeking an unconditional surrender by the central government.
The negotiators on the government side included former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, an official said. Abdullah long has been a vocal critic of President Ashraf Ghani, who long refused to give up power to get a deal with the Taliban.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-door negotiations, described them as “tense.”
Acting defence minister Bismillah Khan sought to reassure the public in a video message. “I assure you about the security of Kabul,” he said. Earlier, the insurgents also tried to calm residents of the capital “No one’s life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk,” the insurgents said in a statement.
However, a voice message circulating social media purportedly from a Taliban commander also warned “no one is allowed to enter into Kabul province.”
Despite the pledges, panic set in as many rushed to leave the country through the Kabul airport, the last route out of the country as the Taliban now hold every border crossing. Rapid shuttle flights of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters near the embassy began a few hours later after the militants seized the nearby city of Jalalabad. Diplomatic armored SUVs could be seen leaving the area around the post.
The US state department did not immediately respond to questions about the movements. However, wisps of smoke could be seen near the embassy's roof as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, according to two American military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the situation. The smoke grew heavier over time in the area, home to other nation's embassies as well.
Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, which typically carry armed troops, later landed near the embassy as well. At least one attack helicopter could be seen overhead as helicopters launched flares to distract possible missile fire. The US decided a few days ago to send in thousands of troops to help evacuate some personnel from its embassy.
Thousands of civilians now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul itself, fearing a Taliban government that could reimpose a brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights. Some ATMs stopped distributing cash as hundreds gathered in front of private banks, trying to withdraw their life savings.
At Kabul International Airport, Afghan forces abandoned the field to Western militaries, said a pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security matters. An Afghan flight earlier landed at the airport from Kandahar loaded with troops who surrendered to the Taliban, even after taking shrapnel damage from a mortar attack, the pilot said.
Ghani, who spoke to the nation Saturday for the first time since the offensive began, appears increasingly isolated as well. Warlords he negotiated with just days earlier have surrendered to the Taliban or fled, leaving Ghani without a military option. Ongoing negotiations in Qatar, the site of a Taliban office, also have failed to stop the insurgents' advance.
Jalalabad, Afghanistan's last major city besides the capital not held by the militants, fell to the Taliban earlier Sunday. Militants posted photos online showing them in the governor’s office in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province.
Abrarullah Murad, a lawmaker from the province told The Associated Press that the insurgents seized Jalalabad after elders negotiated the fall of the government there. Murad said there was no fighting as the city surrendered.
The militants took also Maidan Shar, the capital of Maidan Wardak, on Sunday, only some 90 kilometers from Kabul, Afghan lawmaker Hamida Akbari and the Taliban said. Another provincial capital in Khost also fell to the Taliban, said a provincial council member who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The fall Saturday of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, handed the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan.
Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, two of the warlords Ghani tried to rally to his side days earlier, fled over the border into Uzbekistan on Saturday, said officials close to Dostum. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorised to publicly speak about his movements.
Writing on Twitter, Noor alleged a “conspiracy” aided the fall of the north to the Taliban, without elaborating.
“Despite our firm resistance, sadly, all the government and the Afghan security forces equipment were handed over to the Taliban as a result of a big organised and cowardly plot,” Noor wrote. “They had orchestrated the plot to trap Marshal Dostum and myself too, but they didn’t succeed.”
The Taliban also insisted their fighters wouldn’t enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses. They also said they’d offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
“The Islamic Emirate once again assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honor and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” the militants said. “In this regard, no one should worry about their life.”
Despite the pledge, those who can afford a ticket have been flocking to Kabul International Airport, the only way out of the country after the Taliban took the last border crossing still held by the government Sunday at Torkham. Pakistan’s interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told local broadcaster Geo TV that Pakistan halted cross-border traffic thereafter the militants seized it.
Countries evacuate diplomats
British media are reporting that the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan is to be airlifted out of the country by Monday evening amid fears that the Taliban could seize the airport imminently.
Germany is sending military transport planes to Kabul to begin the evacuation of its embassy staff Monday. The German news agency dpa reported Sunday that the mission will include the evacuation of local Afghan staff working for the German embassy. A German official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to be quoted, told The Associated Press that paratroopers will secure the operation.
The military planes are expected to ferry evacuees from Kabul to a base in Central Asia, from where charter planes will bring them to Frank Jordans in Berlin.
Italian media reported Sunday that most personnel at the Italian Embassy in Kabul are being transferred to the Afghan capital’s airport in preparation for evacuation. The report Sunday by Corriere della Sera said the move affects some 50 Italian staffers and 30 Afghan employees and their families, along with Carabinieri paramilitary police protecting the embassy.
With inputs from agencies