KABUL (REUTERS) – Taleban insurgents were returning to power in Kabul on Monday (Aug 16) after a military advance across Afghanistan as US-led forces departed, and Western nations stepped up efforts to evacuate their citizens from the capital.
President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered the city, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed. A Taleban spokesman said the war is over and the Afghan people will soon learn what form the new regime will take.
In Washington, opponents of President Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war, launched after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, said the chaos was caused by a failure of leadership as more US troops were deployed to help rescue US civilians.
Overnight, the focus was Kabul airport, where hundreds of desperate Afghans seeking to flee the country were waiting for flights, some dragging luggage across runways in the dark.
A source at the airport said some scuffles broke out among people unable to get a place as departures were halted.
Local television 1TV reported that multiple explosions were heard in the capital after dark, but the city was largely quiet during the day on Sunday.
Aid group Emergency said 80 wounded people had been brought to its hospital in Kabul, which was at capacity, and that it was only admitting people with life-threatening injuries.
It was not yet clear where Mr Ghani was headed or how exactly power would be transferred following the Taleban’s lightning sweep across Afghanistan. The spokesman for the Taleban’s political office told Al Jazeera television that the group wants good relations with the international community.
Al Jazeera earlier showed footage of what it said were Taleban commanders in the presidential palace with dozens of armed fighters.
In a Facebook post, Mr Ghani said he had left the country to avoid clashes with the Taleban that would endanger millions of residents of Kabul. He did not say where he was.
Some local social media users in Kabul branded Mr Ghani a coward for leaving them in chaos.
American diplomats were flown by helicopter to the airport from their embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district as Afghan forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.
Many Afghans fear the Taleban will return to past harsh practices in their imposition of syariah, or Islamic religious law. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
The Pentagon authorised another 1,000 troops to help evacuate US citizens and Afghans who worked for them, a US official said.
A senior US defence official told Reuters on Sunday evening in Washington that about 500 people, mostly Americans, had so far been evacuated, and that the number would rise to 5,000 a day when all planned US forces are in Kabul.
European nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, also said they were working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out of the country.
Russia said it saw no need to evacuate its embassy for the time being. Turkey said its embassy would continue operations.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Taleban and all other parties to exercise the utmost restraint, and expressed particular concern about the future of women and girls in Afghanistan.
Asked if images of helicopters ferrying personnel were evocative of the United States’ departure from Vietnam in 1975, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News: “Let’s take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon.”
Mr Biden has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor, Mr Donald Trump, to end the US military mission in Afghanistan by Aug. 31.
In a statement on Sunday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blamed Mr Biden for what he called a “shameful failure of American leadership”.
“Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low,” Mr McConnell said.
Also on Sunday, the Taleban captured the eastern city of Jalalabad without a fight, giving them control of one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan. They also took the nearby Torkham border post with Pakistan, leaving Kabul airport the only way out of Afghanistan still in government hands.
A video clip distributed by the Taleban showed people cheering and shouting: “Allahu Akbar” – God is greatest – as a convoy of pickup trucks entered Jalalabad with fighters brandishing machine guns and the white Taleban flag.
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