Soon after Taliban fighters took over the presidential palace, sporadic gunfire was heard in central Kabul. Checkpoints were abandoned by government troops even as panic-stricken residents blocked the streets. By afternoon, the Taliban had taken over Kabul’s main Pul-e-Charkhi prison, freeing thousands of inmates, videos on social media showed.
As Kabul was being taken over, Ghani exited the country along with his key aides without waiting for what the Taliban had said would be a formal handover to a transitional government following his resignation. Late in the evening, Reuters quoted two Taliban officials as saying there would be no transitional government, followed by reports of Kabul airport coming under attack.
“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly, including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore, we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place,” Reuters quoted the US embassy as saying in a security alert.
Earlier in the day, there were reports of negotiations at the presidential palace between the Taliban and government representatives, headed by former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council. Afghan media said Ali Ahmed Jalali, the country’s former ambassador to Germany, could head the interim government. Acting defence minister Bismillah Mohammadi said a roadmap for peaceful transfer of power to the transitional government was being prepared.
Taliban leaders, who had earlier asked their fighters to refrain from violence in Kabul and allow safe passage to anyone wanting to leave the city, were later ordered to clamp down on the city to prevent looting.
The Taliban victory coincided with the quick exit of American and British diplomatic staff and other citizens before flight operations at Kabul airport were halted for some hours. Ross Wilson, the top US diplomat in Afghanistan, and other staff took a helicopter to the airport even as the US flag fluttering over the embassy was removed.
Smoke had been spotted over the embassy’s roof before the Americans left, fuelling speculation that the US diplomats destroyed all sensitive documents before leaving the compound.
Germany said it would send military aircraft late Sunday to evacuate Germans as well as Afghan support staff. NATO is said to be discussing the evolving situation while the UN security council will meet on Monday morning, Reuters said quoting diplomats.
Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Mansoor Ahmad Khan, and ex-envoy Muhammad Sadiq confirmed receiving an Afghan political delegation, including Wolesi Jirga (national assembly) speaker Mir Rehman Rehmani, Salahuddin Rabbani, Muhammad Yunus Qanooni, Ustad Muhammad Karim, Ahmad Zia Massoud, Ahmad Wali Massoud, Abdul Latif Pedram and Khalid Noor.
“Honoured to receive a delegation of Afghan political leaders arriving Islamabad for a three-day visit for consultations on the way forward for peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Khan tweeted.
In the lead-up to the last lap of the Taliban surge, its fighters had taken control of the strategically important city of Jalalabad in the eastern Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan. The forces then captured the Bagram airfield and prison, on the outskirts of Kabul. The Bagram complex was the epicentre of the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda for some 20 years until last month, when the US military left the facility without notifying the Kabul administration.
Bagram prison, once dubbed Afghanistan’s Guantanamo, was handed over by the Americans to Afghan authorities in 2013. Sources said it had been decided at the recent Doha meetings that blood would not be spilled in Kabul.
Sohail Shaheen, a Doha-based Taliban spokesperson and part of the militant group’s negotiating team, told the media that they would take full control of Afghanistan in the next few days, albeit with “a peaceful transfer”. He laid out the policies of the Taliban ahead of the expected power transfer. “We want an inclusive Islamic government… that means all Afghans will be part of that government,” the spokesperson said.
Shaheen urged foreign diplomats and workers not to leave the country, assuring them that Taliban fighters would not target them. “There will be no risk to diplomats, NGOs, to anyone. All should continue their work as they were doing in the past,” he said.
He also tried to dispel fears that Afghanistan would be chained once again by the ultra-conservative version of Islamic law prevalent in the country before 2001. “The Taliban will instead seek a new chapter of tolerance, peaceful coexistence and national unity for the country and its people,” Shaheen said. “We want to open a new chapter of peace, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and national unity for the country and its people. We reassure all that there will be no revenge on anyone.”
The Doha-based spokesperson said the Taliban would also “review its relationship with the US” to pursue a new chapter of cooperation.