Kabul: The US military took over Afghanistan's airspace on Monday as it struggled to manage a chaotic evacuation after the Taliban rolled into the capital, as the militants tried to project calm amid widespread fears of unrest.
The Taliban swept into the capital on Sunday after the Western-backed government collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, bringing a stunning end to a two-decade campaign in which the US and its allies had tried to transform the country.
Thousands of Afghans, fearing a return to the Taliban's brutal rule, are trying to flee the country through Hamid Karzai International Airport. Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people racing across the tarmac as US soldiers fired warning shots in the air.
The US Embassy has been evacuated and the American flag lowered, with diplomats relocating to the airport to aid with the evacuation. Other Western countries have also closed their missions and are flying out staff and civilians.
By morning, Afghanistan's Civil Aviation Authority issued an advisory saying the "civilian side" of the airport had been "closed until further notice" and that the military controlled the airspace.
Afghanistan's airspace is often used by long-haul carriers moving between the Far East and the West. Early Monday morning, flight-tracking data showed no immediate commercial flights over the country.
In the capital itself a tense calm set in, with most people hiding in their homes. There were scattered reports of looting and armed men knocking on doors and gates. The Taliban freed thousands of prisoners as they swept across the country and the police melted away.
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The Taliban deployed fighters at major intersections and sought to project calm, circulating videos showing quiet city streets.
"There were a few Taliban fighters on each and every road and intersection in the city," Shah Mohammad, a 55-year-old gardener, said after coming to work in the diplomatic quarter. He said there was less traffic than usual and fewer people out on the streets.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, tweeted that fighters had been instructed not to enter any home without permission and to protect "life, property and honor."
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 with a harsh form of Islamic law. Women were largely confined to their homes and suspected criminals faced amputation or public execution. The Taliban have sought to project greater moderation in recent years, but many Afghans remain skeptical and fear a rollback of individual rights gained in recent years.
Earlier, a Taliban official said the group would announce from the palace the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of the country under Taliban rule before the militants were ousted by US-led forces in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which were orchestrated by al-Qaida while it was being sheltered by the Taliban. But that plan appeared to be on hold.
Kabul was gripped by panic. Helicopters raced overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the US Embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents, and the American flag was lowered. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
Fearful that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women's rights, Afghans rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings. The desperately poor — who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital — remained in parks and open spaces throughout the city.
Though the Taliban had promised a peaceful transition, the US Embassy suspended operations and warned Americans late in the day to shelter in place and not try to get to the airport.
Commercial flights were suspended after sporadic gunfire erupted at the Kabul airport, according to two senior US military officials. Evacuations continued on military flights, but the halt to commercial traffic closed off one of the last routes available for fleeing Afghans.
Many people watched in disbelief as helicopters landed in the US Embassy compound to take diplomats to a new outpost at the airport. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the U.S. pullout from Vietnam.
"This is manifestly not Saigon," he said on ABC's This Week.
The American ambassador was among those evacuated, officials said. He was asking to return to the embassy, but it was not clear if he would be allowed to. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.
As the insurgents closed in, President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country.
"The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation," said Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council and a longtime rival of Ghani. "God should hold him accountable."
Ghani later posted on Facebook that he left to avert bloodshed in the capital, without saying where he had gone.
As night fell, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition. Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the upscale diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.
In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO over nearly 20 years to build up Afghan security forces. Just days earlier, an American military assessment estimated that the capital would not come under insurgent pressure for a month.
The fall of Kabul marks the final chapter of America's longest war, which began after the 11 September, 2001, terror attacks. A US-led invasion dislodged the Taliban and beat them back, but America lost focus on the conflict in the chaos of the Iraq war.
For years, the US sought an exit from Afghanistan. Then-President Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that limited direct military action against the insurgents. That allowed the fighters to gather strength and move quickly to seize key areas when President Joe Biden announced his plans to withdraw all American forces by the end of this month.
After the insurgents entered Kabul, Taliban negotiators discussed a transfer of power, said an Afghan official. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-door negotiations, described them as "tense."
It remained unclear when that transfer would take place and who among the Taliban was negotiating. The negotiators on the government side included former president Hamid Karzai, leader of Hizb-e-Islami political and paramilitary group Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and Abdullah, who has been a vocal critic of Ghani.
Karzai himself appeared in a video posted online, his three young daughters around him, saying he remained in Kabul.
"We are trying to solve the issue of Afghanistan with the Taliban leadership peacefully," he said.
Afghanistan's acting defense minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, did not hold back his criticism of the fleeing president.
"They tied our hands from behind and sold the country," he wrote on Twitter. "Curse Ghani and his gang."
The Taliban earlier insisted that their fighters would not enter people's homes or interfere with businesses and said they would offer "amnesty" to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
But there have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country the Taliban have seized in recent days. Reports of gunfire at the airport raised the specter of more violence. One female journalist, weeping, sent voice messages to colleagues after armed men entered her apartment building and banged on her door.
"What should I do? Should I call the police or Taliban?" Getee Azami cried. It wasn't clear what happened to her after that.
An Afghan university student described feeling betrayed as she watched the evacuation of the US Embassy.
"You failed the younger generation of Afghanistan," said Aisha Khurram, 22, who is now unsure of whether she will be able to graduate in two months. She said her generation was "hoping to build the country with their own hands. They put blood, efforts and sweat into whatever we had right now."
In another development, the United States lowered the flag on its embassy in Kabul and has relocated almost all staff to the airport, where US forces are taking over air traffic control, officials said Sunday.
"We are completing a series of steps to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport to enable the safe departure of US and allied personnel from Afghanistan via civilian and military flights," the Pentagon and State Department said in a joint statement.
"Almost all" personnel from the embassy have relocated to the airport including the acting ambassador, Ross Wilson, who remains in touch with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a State Department spokesperson said.
"The American flag has been lowered from the US embassy compound and is now securely located with embassy staff," the spokesperson said.
The shuttering of the US embassy, which was one of the largest in the world, comes nearly 20 years after the United States returned following the defeat of the Taliban regime.
With stunning speed, the Taliban retook the country in little more than a week after President Joe Biden began the final withdrawal of troops, closing America's longest war.
The United States has sent 6,000 troops to the airport to fly out embassy personnel as well as Afghans who assisted the United States as interpreters or in other support roles and now fear retribution.
Their mission will be "focused solely on facilitating these efforts and will be taking over air traffic control," the joint statement said.
On Monday "and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the US mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals," it continued.
Witnesses on social media have complained about disruptions to commercial flights as priority was given to the US airlifts out of Kabul.
Sunday began with the Taliban seizing Jalalabad, the last major city besides the capital not in their hands. Afghan officials said the militants also took the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces, as well as the country's last government-held border post.
Later, Afghan forces at Bagram Air Base, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. The prison at the former US base held both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.
With inputs from AP and AFP