KABUL: Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban entered the capital Kabul on Sunday.
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed Ghani had left in an online video. “He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable,” Abdullah said.
Reuters quoted a senior interior ministry official as saying that Ghani “has left the capital Kabul for Tajikistan”. It is unclear whether Ghani has resigned from the post of president.
Asked for comment, the president’s office said it “cannot say anything about Ashraf Ghani’s movement for security reasons”. A representative of the Taliban said the group was checking on Ghani’s whereabouts.
Ghani’s countrymen and foreigners alike also raced for the exit, signalling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.
Earlier, a senior official told Reuters the Taliban were coming in “from all sides” but gave no further details.
A tweet from the Afghan Presidential palace account said the firing had been heard at a number of points around Kabul but that security forces, in coordination with international partners, had control of the city.
Shortly after Ghani’s departure, The Taliban claimed to have taken control of Afghanistan’s presidential palace. Two senior Taliban commanders present in Kabul told Reuters they were seeking complete power.
There was no confirmation from the Afghan government about the Taliban’s claim. Government officials were not immediately contactable.
Two officials from the Taliban told Reuters there would be no transitional government following their lighting sweep across Afghanistan that led back to the capital two decades after the group were overthrown by US-led forces.
Moreover, a Taliban spokesman told the BBC that the group sought to take control of Afghanistan “in the next few days”.
“In the next few days, we want a peaceful transfer,” Suhail Shaheen, based in Qatar as part of the group’s negotiating team, told the BBC.
Shaheen laid out the policies of the Taliban ahead of an expected power transfer that would re-install the group two decades after US-led forces toppled them in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“We want an inclusive Islamic government… that means all Afghans will be part of that government,” Shaheen said.
“We will see that in the future as the peaceful transfer is taking place.”
He also said foreign embassies and workers would not be targeted by the group’s fighters and they should remain in the country.
“There will be no risk to diplomats, NGOs, to anyone. All should continue their work as they were continuing in the past. They won’t harm them, they should remain.”
Rebuffing fears the country would be plunged back to the dark days of the group’s ultra-conservative version of Islamic law, Shaheen said the Taliban will instead seek a “new chapter” of tolerance.
“We want to work with any Afghan, we want to open a new chapter of peace, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and national unity for the country and for the people of Afghanistan,” he said.
But many officials, soldiers and police have surrendered or abandoned their posts, fearing reprisals against anyone suspected of working with the Western-backed government or Western forces.
Shaheen said that would not happen.
“We reassure that there is no revenge on anyone. Any case will be investigated.”
The Doha-based spokesman said the group would also review its relationship with the United States, which it has waged a deadly insurgency against for decades.
“Our relationship was in the past,” he said. “In future, if it will touch our agenda no more, it will be a new chapter of cooperation.”
The United States also evacuated diplomats from its embassy by helicopter. US officials said the diplomats were being ferried to the airport from the embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district. More American troops were being sent to help in the evacuations after the Taliban’s lightning advances brought the group to Kabul in a matter of days.
Just last week, a US intelligence estimate said Kabul could hold out for at least three months. 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.
“Core” US team members were working from the Kabul airport, a US official said, while a NATO official said several EU staff had moved to a safer, undisclosed location in the capital.
A Taliban official told Reuters the group did not want any casualties as it took charge but had not declared a ceasefire.
Earlier on Sunday, the insurgents captured the eastern city of Jalalabad without a fight, giving them control of one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan.
They also took over the nearby Torkham border post with Pakistan, leaving Kabul airport the only way out of Afghanistan that is still in government hands.
The capture of Jalalabad followed the Taliban’s seizure of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif late on Saturday, also with little fighting.
“There are no clashes taking place right now in Jalalabad because the governor has surrendered to the Taliban,” a Jalalabad-based Afghan official told Reuters. “Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives.”
A video clip distributed by the Taliban showed people cheering and shout Allah-o-Akbar — God is greatest — as a convoy of pick-up trucks entered the city with fighters brandishing machine guns and the white Taliban flag.
After US-led forces withdrew the bulk of their remaining troops in the last month, the Taliban campaign accelerated as the Afghan military’s defences appeared to collapse.
President Joe Biden on Saturday authorised the deployment of 5,000 US troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an “orderly and safe” drawdown of military personnel. A US defence official said that included 1,000 newly approved troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Taliban fighters entered Mazar-i-Sharif virtually unopposed as security forces escaped up the highway to Uzbekistan, about 80 km (50 miles) to the north, provincial officials said.
Unverified video on social media showed Afghan army vehicles and men in uniforms crowding the iron bridge between the Afghan town of Hairatan and Uzbekistan.
Two influential militia leaders supporting the government — Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum — also fled. Noor said on social media that the Taliban had been handed control of Balkh province, where Mazar-i-Sharif is located, due to a “conspiracy.”
In a statement late on Saturday, the Taliban said its rapid gains showed it was popularly accepted by the Afghan people and reassured both Afghans and foreigners that they would be safe.
The Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban calls itself, “will, as always, protect their life, property and honour, and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” it said, adding that diplomats and aid workers would also face no problems.
Afghans have fled the provinces to enter Kabul in recent days, fearing a return to hardline rule.
Early on Sunday, refugees from Taliban-controlled provinces were seen unloading belongings from taxis and families stood outside embassy gates, while the city’s downtown was packed with people stocking up on supplies.
Hundreds of people slept huddled in tents or in the open in the city, by roadsides or in car parks, a resident said on Saturday night. “You can see the fear in their faces,” he said.
Biden said his administration had told Taliban officials in talks in Qatar that any action that put US personnel at risk “will be met with a swift and strong US military response.”
He has faced rising domestic criticism as the Taliban have taken city after city far more quickly than predicted. The president has stuck to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, to end the US military mission in Afghanistan by August 31.
Biden said it is up to the Afghan military to hold its own territory. “An endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me,” Biden said on Saturday.
Qatar, which has been hosting so-far inconclusive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, said it had urged the insurgents to a ceasefire.