The Taliban are poised to take full control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, after their fighters took up positions on the outskirts of the city and the US sent helicopters to evacuate diplomats from its embassy.
In deeply humiliating scenes for the Biden administration, embassy personnel were ferried from the compound to the nearby airport by military helicopter. Diplomatic armoured SUVs were also seen leaving. The exodus began early on Sunday after the insurgents captured the eastern city of Jalalabad.
Wisps of smoke were observed near the embassy roof, as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, US military officials told the Associated Press. British embassy staff were also scrambling to leave the country, with the ambassador due to fly out.
The Taliban’s stunning 11-day offensive across Afghanistan, during which the insurgents have captured a string of provincial capitals, appears to be entering its final phase. Taliban fighters took up positions on the outskirts of Kabul and the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman.
Taliban leaders said they had no plans to seize the capital by force. Instead, small groups of fighters reportedly entered the city from two directions and told police forces to surrender. The fall of Kabul and its western-backed government seemed a matter of hours away.
The Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani appears to have recognised this rapidly unfolding reality. The acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal, said in a tweet that a peaceful transition to Taliban rule was under way. Kabul would not be attacked, he said.
Despite sporadic gunfire, the insurgents appear to have met little or no resistance. Their entry into Kabul follows the capture on Saturday of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth biggest city and the last major government stronghold in the north.
The Taliban’s spokesman said on Sunday that the group did not intend to take reprisals against Afghans living in Kabul who had worked with the US or who had served in the Afghan military.
Zabihulla Mujahid tweeted: “We don’t want a single, innocent Afghan civilian to be injured or killed as we take charge.” He added, however: “We have not declared a ceasefire.”
The likely imminent fall of Kabul amounts to a disastrous moment for western policy, two decades in the making. An international coalition led by Washington and London triumphantly pushed out the Taliban in December 2001, seemingly consigning their caliphate to history.
The country is set to revert to hardline Islamist rule, and the gains made in the realm of women and girls’ education are set to disappear overnight. Despite the conciliatory tone of recent Taliban messaging, reprisals in Kabul seem likely.
The mood on the streets was one of fear, residents said. Shops remain closed and citizens tried to withdraw their savings from banks. People displaced from other parts of the country as the Taliban advanced are camped out in parks and public spaces, huddled in tents.