Monday Aug 16 2021
Web Desk

Taliban claim they have control of Afghan presidential palace, rule out transitional govt

Web Desk

Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15, 2021. — Photo by AFP
Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15, 2021. — Photo by AFP

  • Taliban reach Kabul after lightning offensive.

  • Insurgents rule out a transitional government.
  • President Ashraf Ghani leaves the country.
  • Diplomats, Afghans flee to airport, reports of fire.
  • Taliban seek to project more moderate image.

KABUL: The Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday and President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed, bringing the insurgents close to taking over the country two decades after they were overthrown by a US-led invasion.

As night fell, local television 1TV reported that multiple explosions were heard in the city, which had been largely quiet earlier in the day. It said gunfire could be heard near the airport, where foreign diplomats, officials and other Afghans fled seeking to leave the country.

Aid group Emergency said 80 wounded people had been brought to its hospital in Kabul, which was at capacity, and that it had restricted admission to people with life-threatening injuries.

It was not yet clear where Ghani was headed or how exactly power would be transferred following the Taliban's lightning sweep in recent weeks across Afghanistan. Their advance accelerated as US and other foreign troops withdrew in line with President Joe Biden's desire to end America's longest war, launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Insurgents entered the presidential palace and took control of it, two senior Taliban commanders in Kabul said. Al Jazeera television later showed footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the palace with dozens of armed fighters.

The Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 9, 2020. —Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images
The Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 9, 2020. —Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

The Taliban also said they had taken control of most of the districts around the outskirts of the capital.

In a post on Facebook, Ghani said he had left the country to avoid bloodshed and clashes with the Taliban that would endanger millions of residents of Kabul. He did not say where he was.

A senior Interior Ministry official said Ghani had left for Tajikistan. A Foreign Ministry official said his location was unknown and the Taliban said it was checking his whereabouts.

Some local social media users branded Ghani a "coward" for leaving them in chaos.

American diplomats were flown from their embassy by helicopter to the airport as Afghan forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others for billions of dollars, melted away.

The US Embassy said in a security alert that "the security situation in Kabul is changing quickly" including at the airport, adding that there were reports the airport had come under fire. Two sources familiar with the situation at the airport could not confirm these reports.

Hundreds of Afghans, some of them government ministers and government employees and also other civilians including many women and children, crowded in the terminal at Kabul airport desperately waiting for flights out.

Taliban fighters reached Kabul "from all sides", the senior Interior Ministry official told Reuters and there were some reports of sporadic gunfire around the city.

During Sunday, the government's acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, said power would be handed over to a transitional administration. He tweeted: "There won't be an attack on the city, it is agreed that there will be a peaceful handover".

However, two Taliban officials told Reuters there would be no transitional government. The Taliban said earlier it was waiting for the government to surrender peacefully.

Taliban fighters and local residents sit over an Afghan National Army (ANA) humvee vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province on August 15, 2021. — Photo by AFP
Taliban fighters and local residents sit over an Afghan National Army (ANA) humvee vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province on August 15, 2021. — Photo by AFP

Ghani says fled country to prevent 'flood of bloodshed'

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that he had fled the country to "prevent a flood of bloodshed".

Ghani, who did not say where he had gone, 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 in a statement posted to Facebook.

UNSC to hold emergency meeting

According to the Guardian, the United Nations Security Council is due to hold an emergency meeting tomorrow at 10am local time in New York (7pm Pakistan Standard Time).

Capture of Jalalabad

The insurgents also 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 still in government hands.

"Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives," a Jalalabad-based Afghan official told Reuters.

A video clip distributed by the Taliban showed people cheering and shouting "Allahu Akbar" — God is greatest — as a convoy of pickup trucks entered Jalalabad with fighters brandishing machine guns and the white Taliban flag.

Taliban fighters and local people sit on an Afghan National Army (ANA) humvee vehicle on a street in Jalalabad province on August 15, 2021. — Photo by AFP
Taliban fighters and local people sit on an Afghan National Army (ANA) humvee vehicle on a street in Jalalabad province on August 15, 2021. — Photo by AFP

Taliban seek to project moderate image

Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practice. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women's rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans. "We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe," the spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC, saying a transfer of power was expected in days.

Many of Kabul's streets were choked by cars and people either trying to rush home or reach the airport, residents said.

"Some people have left their keys in the car and have started walking to the airport," one resident told Reuters. Another said: "People are all going home in fear of fighting."

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.

Evacuation of foreigners

US officials said diplomats were being ferried by helicopters to the airport from its embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district. A NATO official said several European Union staff had moved to a safer location in Kabul.

US troops were still arriving at the airport, amid concern heavily armed Afghan security contractors could "mutiny" because they have not been assured Washington is committed to evacuating them, a person familiar with the issue said.

European nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, also said they were moving their diplomats to the airport and working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out of the country.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he had discussed the rapidly evolving situation with Britain, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier in Washington that the embassy was being moved to the airport and had a list of people to get out of harm's way.

Asked if images of helicopters ferrying personnel were evocative of the United States’ departure from Vietnam in 1975, Blinken told ABC news: "Let's take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon."

A US military helicopter is pictured flying above the US embassy in Kabul on August 15, 2021. — Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP
 A US military helicopter is pictured flying above the US embassy in Kabul on August 15, 2021. — Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP   

A NATO official said the alliance was helping secure the airport and that a political solution was "now more urgent than ever".

Russia said it saw no need to evacuate its embassy for the time being. Turkey said its embassy would continue operations.

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.

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."

Biden has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, to end the US military mission in Afghanistan by August 31.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blamed Biden for a "botched exit" from Afghanistan by the United States, calling it a "shameful failure of American leadership."

"Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low," McConnell said in a statement.

Ashraf Ghani 'left the people to this situation'

Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan on Sunday evening, ceding power to the Taliban as they reached the capital Kabul to seal a nationwide military victory in just 10 days.

His exit came hours after the Taliban ordered their fighters to wait on the outskirts of the capital following an astonishing rout of government forces.

"The former Afghan President has left the nation, leaving the people to this situation," Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the peace process, said in a video on his Facebook page.

"God hold him accountable, and the people will have their judgement."

It is not yet clear whether he has resigned as president.

Taliban enter Kabul 'to control chaos'

A Taliban spokesman said that Taliban fighters entered Kabul in response to a “law and order issue”, the Guardian reported.

The group ordered its fighters earlier Sunday not to enter the capital, saying the remnants of the government's forces were responsible for security.

But later, a spokesman tweeted that Taliban forces should enter areas deserted by Afghan forces in order to maintain law and order.

The Taliban issued a statement under the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" banner saying the group has now been permitted to enter Kabul.

The statement claimed that Afghan police and other relevant institutions abandoned their duties and that to "prevent theft, looting and crime", the group's forces have been allowed to enter the capital.

"The Taliban will secure areas abandoned by Afghan forces in Kabul," said the statement.

It sought to assure citizens that the forces will neither enter their homes, nor "bother them".

Journalists reporting from on the ground, including former Wall Street Journal reporter Habib Khan, confirmed that the Taliban will enter the city to secure areas abandoned by the government in order to “control the chaos”.

Afghan govt delegation to travel to Doha 'soon'

Meanwhile, the CNN reported that a high-level Afghan government delegation will travel to Doha "soon" for talks with the Taliban.

“The situation is changing by the minute but we could expect an Afghan government delegation that has more power and authority to travel to Doha soon,” a source privy to the intra-Afghan negotiations told CNN.

Abdullah Abdullah, chief of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), is expected to hold talks with Taliban representatives there.

Taliban want 'peaceful transfer in next few days': spokesman

A spokesman for the Taliban told the BBC the group want to take control of Afghanistan "in the next few days", as their fighters encircled Kabul, the capital.

"In 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."