Kabul, the ultimate prize in every Afghanistan war, fell to the Taliban Sunday, completing their takeover of the country in a lighting offensive that saw provinces and warlords give up without a fight, days after the hasty withdrawal of US troops.
President Ashraf Ghani, sources said, had fled the country, hours after Pakistan-backed Taliban fighters showed up on the outskirts of Kabul and their chiefs demanded transfer of power to avoid bloodshed.
This is the first time since their ouster 20 years ago in the wake of the 9/11 strikes that Taliban fighters have entered the city — they first seized the Capital in 1996. Late at night, fighters in pickups and SUVs did victory rounds in the heart of Kabul.
There was no official statement on Ghani’s departure or on the interim power arrangement being put in place.
(The Associated Press reported that Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, had confirmed Ghani’s departure. “The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” Abdullah said. “God should hold him accountable.”)
The city’s fate was sealed — Kabul was the last big city under government control after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif Saturday evening — when the Taliban were spotted on the outskirts Sunday.
Word of their arrival spread like wildfire, and the city panicked. There were traffic snarls everywhere, and people rushed home to stock up on essentials, withdrawing money from banks.
By afternoon, the fall of the city was more or less complete. Streets emptied, and helicopters flew over the downtown area, home to all major offices and embassies.
As the helicopters evacuated personnel from the US embassy, smoke rose from the compound, suggesting destruction of documents, equipment. The US ambassador was among those said to have been evacuated. Many other foreign missions also set in motion their exit plans.
The Taliban moved on Kabul and other cities and towns near it after seizing the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif Saturday night.
On Sunday, the Taliban ran over Bagram airbase after the soldiers there surrendered. It also took over a prison where hundreds of Taliban and Islamic State members were being held. Among the cities that fell was Jalalabad in the east. By evening, the rout of Afghanistan’s forces and regime was complete.