President flees as Kabul falls to Taliban

President flees as Kabul falls to Taliban
After only six weeks of fighting, the Taliban captured Kabul and toppled the US-backed government to retake control of the country. / twitter
By Ben Aris in Berlin August 15, 2021

Kabul fell to Taliban forces on August 15 with almost no fighting, completing the Islamic fundamentalists' capture of Afghanistan in just six weeks since the US pulled out.

The mayor of Kabul decided to hand over the city to the advancing Taliban forces without resistance “in order to avoid bloodshed.” The surrender was unexpectedly quick although widely anticipated and sent embassies scrambling to evacuate personnel.

Helicopters were seen over the US embassy airlifting staff to safety in a scene reminiscent of the fall and evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war – a parallel that was not lost in social media memes.

The panicky rush to evacuate diplomats came the day after US President Joe Biden released a statement promising to deploy 5,000 US troops to ensure the evacuation of diplomats and Afghans together with their families who had worked for the US forces during their 20-year long occupation.

“I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth,” Biden concluded his statement.

Other European embassies and Nato members also rushed to get their people out. The Taliban quickly captured Bagram airbase, long the headquarters of the US military in Afghanistan, and released thousands of prisoners still held there. However, US armed forces still in the country took control of Kabul’s international airport and kept it functioning. Turkey has been discussing plans for a contingent of its troops to remain in Afghanistan to secure the airport, but those plans will now almost certainly have to be torn up.

Police in Kabul abandoned their posts and either fled or put on civilian clothes, but kept their weapons according to eyewitness accounts in Kabul.

“Have been talking with police in downtown Kabul. Some have left their posts, others have put on civilian dress but keep their weapons. Some vow to stick together, others go their own way, but none say they want to fight the Taliban,” tweeted Matthieu Aikins, a journalist for the New York Times in Kabul.

Armed Taliban forces were soon in the capital and taking control of the streets. Taliban officials attempted to calm nerves and issued a number of statements. In particular the Taliban promised there would be no revenge killings of those that worked for Nato forces and that they “would be forgiven.” The Taliban also explicitly gave a guarantee that no harm would be done to Russian diplomats. Russia's embassy is one of the few such missions in Kabul still functioning.

President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital on a plane for Dushanbe within a few hours of the surrender, completing the humiliating collapse of the US-backed government. Reports suggest that Ghani will travel on from Tajikistan to a third unnamed country. Tajikistan and the two other Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, meanwhile, were keeping a wary eye on the situation, though the Taliban have stated this past week that they have no interest in advancing beyond Afghanistan's borders.

As the sun went down on a dramatic day, two Taliban officials told Reuters there would be no transitional government in Afghanistan. The group expects a complete and immediate handover of power.  

Chaos as Afghans try to flee

There were scenes of chaos as western diplomats and well connected locals attempted to get onto C-17 US transport planes that were leaving the country. (See more video from the airport here.)

The US visa processing office in Kabul was flooded with former workers desperately trying to fill out the (English language) forms for special US visas that would allow them to escape to the US.

“Afghans at a visa processing office in Kabul just now. One man, overwhelmed, trying to help Afghans fill out US state dept forms (in English).  Desperation. Many people came up to me crying, saying the need to leave, fear for their lives as Taliban closes in on Kabul,” tweeted Richard Engel, NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent from Kabul.

The US embassy account announced on twitter that the embassy had officially moved and was based at the Kabul international airport from late afternoon.

Nato's secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said that Nato was helping keep the airport open to facilitate and coordinate evacuations as tensions escalated.

By early evening there were reports of gunfire near the airport and the Russian Sputnik newswire reported two large explosions near the US embassy in the city.

“Taliban roaming in #Kabul airport road driving Humvees, and motorbikes as sporadic fire can be heard from different locations. Helicopters flying overhead,” Hamid Shalizi, a reporter from Reuters, tweeted in the early evening. At the same time the Taliban had taken over the national TV centre and began broadcasting to the population.

The country’s acting central bank governor announced that he was leaving the country for the US for a “complete medical check up” because he has “not been feeling well for the last few days.”

There were also reports of several hundred Afghans who turned up seeking to cross the Friendship Bridge on the Uzbek border near the Afghan town of Hairatan. Initially they were blocked by Uzbek border troops, but it appears they were eventually allowed through.

Many Afghans are afraid that the Taliban will actually seek revenge on those that cooperated with the US or have adopted more liberalised values.

A spokesman for the Taliban told the BBC's Yalda Hakim "there will be no revenge" on the people of Afghanistan on the same day as the fall of Kabul. Suhail Shaheen called the presenter live on air. "We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe - there will be no revenge on anyone," he told her. "We are the servants of the people and of this country."

But few have faith in the promise. There are reports that the Taliban have been executing government soldiers, not only those captured in the field; in the past few days soldiers are said to have been dragged from homes in cities recently captured and shot on their doorsteps.

Likewise there are similar unconfirmed reports of Taliban beating, raping and executing women for breaking their strict codes of conduct. Taliban officials also tried to downplay these fears in more statements on August 15, saying women would be allowed outside without a male family escort and that women would be allowed to work. Again, reports have already come in from captured cities of female students being turned away from universities and women at work being sent home and told their job would be given to a man.

Even before the Taliban had secured Kabul, workers had been deployed to paint over all the billboard advertisements along streets with pictures of women. 

US plans gone awry

The US command badly miscalculated the speed of the Taliban’s military takeover and the ability of the US-trained Afghan government forces to resist them. Four days ago the US high command revised its estimate for the fall of Kabul from 12 to 3 three months, the Washington Post reported.

“Afghanistan was the most distilled example of Potemkin democracy. East European examples are less clear cut - they have elements of both genuine and Potemkin democracy, which comes in a package with geopolitical choice. A truly organic government is perhaps Orban’s,” Leonid Ragozin, a Russian reporter based in Latvia, tweeted.

The Afghan army that was supposed to protect the country melted away in the face of the Taliban onslaught. Poorly provisioned and with low morale, the army was never effective as a fighting force. Moreover, military analysts commenting on the debacle say that the army was trained to fight in an American way that relies heavily on air support – support that ended with the departure of the US troops in July.

“In the last days, there was no food, no water and no weapons,” said trooper Taj Mohammad, 38. Fleeing in an armoured personnel carrier and one Ford Ranger, some remaining soldiers finally made a run to the relative safety of a provincial capital, which collapsed weeks later. They left behind 11 APCs to the Taliban, The Wall Street Journal reported from Kabul.

The US spent an estimated $88bn on the Afghan army to build up a force from nothing to 118,628 as of April 2021. In addition to the ballooning manpower, the Pentagon spent heavily on weapons. The Taliban will inherit a sophisticated armoury of weapons, munitions and vehicles to make it one of the most powerful military forces in the region.

“Your regular reminder that 87% of Afghans support schooling for girls and the Taliban have never won the genuine political support of more than about 1 in 10 people. What we are witnessing in Afghanistan is a military coup sui generis and should be labelled as such,” tweeted Luke Cooper, an assistant professor at Bristol University.

A US helicopter over the American embassy airlifting staff to safety.

Russian standing improves

The Taliban has gone out of its way to reassure Russia about its intentions, and specifically that it does not intend to spread its control beyond Afghanistan’s borders, acknowledging that Russia is the major power in the region.

Russians had already moved non-essential personnel from the Kabul embassy to Tashkent on July 12, 10 days after the US pullout, as Russia had anticipated trouble from start. But as Russia has the major military force in the region, the Taliban are treating the Rusians cautiously. Specifically on the day of the takeover of Kabul, the Taliban guaranteed the safety of the Russian Embassy in Kabul, Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office told TASS.

"Yes, we have good relations with Russia and our policy in general is to ensure the safe conditions for the functioning of the Russian and other embassies," he said in reply to a query.

Russia is keen to keep communications with the Taliban open as it tries to prevent instability spilling over into the rest of the region.

“RUS isn’t evacuating the embassy from Kabul. It keeps contacts w/Taliban & watches developments. Meanwhile, RUS forces exercise w/Uzbeks and Tajiks in the neighbourhood. For Moscow, the main issue is not who’s in power in Kabul, but whether radicals cross into Central Asia. For now, it looks unlikely,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a tweet.

The crisis has improved Russia’s standing in the region as it is the security guarantor in the region. It has also sent troops and tanks from its base in Tajikistan to the Tajik border to ensure the fighting does not spill over. Russia has also in the last week held military exercises with the Uzbeks to bolster security there.

As the Taliban marched into Kabul, Russian President Vladimir Putin called his Uzbek counteraprt Shavkat Mirziyoyev to discuss developments. "It was agreed to intensify interaction between the relevant ministries and departments of Russia and Uzbekistan," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Central Asia worried

All of Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia were on high alert as the government of Afghanistan collapsed. All of the countries in the region have tightened their borders.

“Reports circulated yesterday about Kazakhstan being ready to take in 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan, apparently in coordination with US govt. That has now been scotched by Kazakh Foreign Ministry, which denies any such plans,” tweeted Peter Leonard, the editor of Eurasianet.

The US had earlier lobbied Uzbekistan to accept refugees and the authorities have set up a tent camp near the border, but have remained reluctant to allow soldiers fleeing the fighting to cross. Iran has also set up tent camps for Afghans who cross into the Islamic Republic, but has warned that the refugees will be expected to return to Afghanistan once the situation in their country stabilises.

“For Uzbekistan, it could be a major blow to Mirziyoyev's connectivity projects, as well as alienating international investors scared of the regional fallout. Plus the possible flow of refugees,” said Davide Cancarini, a researcher covering Central Asia.

“For Tajikistan, the worst-case scenario just materialised. The Tajik authorities have always strongly opposed the Taliban. A further militarisation of the border is likely and Tajik president Emomali Rahmon will try to get funds from everyone. He also has to calculate on the possible flow of refugees as well,” Cancarini said.

“The final failure of the Turkmenistan-sponsored TAPI gas pipeline project across Afghanistan. The Taliban have reassured on the safety of a possible pipeline, but their lack of reliability (especially in the eyes of India) will make it impossible to develop the project,” Cancarini concluded.

China looks on

China has stayed away from the active phase of the Taliban’s takeover, but has already reached out to the group acknowledging its inevitable control of the country. At the end of July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stood shoulder to shoulder with visiting Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the political chief of the Taliban, in Tianjin, China for talks. As bne IntelliNews reported, the Taliban takeover is a headache for Beijing, which will try to contain the risks it presents.