Taliban fighters entered Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed, signalling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.
The Taliban fanned out across the capital on Sunday and took control of the presidential palace. Al Jazeera gained exclusive footage of Taliban commanders in the palace with dozens of armed fighters.
The city was gripped by panic, with helicopters racing 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.
Afghans fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights 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.
“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. “God should hold him accountable.”
Ghani later posted on Facebook that he had chosen to leave the country to avert bloodshed in the capital, without saying where he had gone. The media later reported that Ghani left for Uzbekistan.
Ghani said he believed “countless patriots would be martyred and the city of Kabul would be destroyed” if he had stayed behind.
“The Taliban have won … and are now responsible for the honour, property and self-preservation of their countrymen,” he said.
As night fell on Sunday, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition.
In a stunning rout, the Taliban captured 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals since August 6, 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 it would be a month before the capital would come under the Taliban pressure.
Instead, the Taliban swiftly 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.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said it was a day of “incredible developments”, as Ghani was expected to be involved in negotiations over a power transfer.
“I think everyone accepted it would be some sort of deal that would not involve Ashraf Ghani himself,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone anticipated that he would have left the country completely and so quickly.”
McBride said it was generally accepted that the Taliban would have to include some elements of the previous administration in any agreement in order to gain any kind of legitimacy and be accepted by the wider international community.