Afghanistan’s president fled the country as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, effectively handing back power to the Islamist group almost 20 years after it was ousted by a US-led invasion.
Facing virtually no armed resistance, Taliban fighters poured into the capital on Sunday and sought to establish control while US and other foreign governments scrambled to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies.
Late on Sunday, Mullah Baradar, one of the Taliban’s most senior officials, said in a video statement that the movement’s swift victory over the Afghan government had been an unrivalled feat, but that the real test of governing effectively would begin now that it had won power.
The Taliban said that it was “holding talks aimed at forming an ‘open, inclusive Islamic government’”.
It added: “We are ready to deal with the concerns of the international community through dialogue.”
Tumultuous scenes were reported at Kabul airport, as panicked city residents sought flights out, while the US embassy warned of a deteriorating security situation. A Taliban spokesperson urged people to stay calm.
The Taliban’s entry into Kabul was the culmination of a dramatic week-long lightning offensive in which the Islamist fighters seized control over most of the country, often facing little armed resistance, in an astonishing reordering of Afghanistan’s political map.
“The Taliban has entered Kabul,” Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, wrote on Twitter. “The Taliban took over the presidential palace, the police command and other installations. Kabul will effectively fall today.”
The onslaught left the government of Ashraf Ghani politically and militarily isolated, and facing an imminent Taliban attack. The president, who had resisted calls for his resignation to pave the way for peace talks with the militia, finally bowed out.
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, confirmed Ghani’s departure and said he was in talks with other Afghan leaders and the Taliban for a peaceful handover.
António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, urged “the Taliban and all other parties to exercise the utmost restraint in order to protect lives”.
Taliban fighters, who plan to establish an Islamic state ruled by a strict, literal interpretation of Islamic law, were already taking over abandoned city police stations and posts.
The US on Sunday increased its deployment to 6,000 troops to support the evacuation of diplomats, allied personnel and thousands of Afghans at risk of retribution for working with the US. Ned Price, the US state department spokesperson, said all embassy staff had been evacuated to the airport, which was secured by the American military.
Joe Biden said that Washington had warned the Taliban that “any action . . . that puts US personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong military response”.
Biden said that the US was working with Ghani and other Afghan political leaders, as well as regional powers, “as they seek to prevent further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement”.
As the US evacuation got under way, embassy staff were instructed to burn sensitive documents, while Kabul residents thronged banks in an attempt to withdraw their savings.
Although the Taliban’s week-long onslaught has led to less bloodshed than the extent of their territorial gains might suggest, country specialists warned that Afghanistan, with its diverse mix of rival ethnic groups and fierce community rivalries, was heading towards a civil war.
“This is the end of Afghanistan as a nation,” Sara Wahedi, a former Afghan government official who runs a security app for Kabul residents, wrote on Twitter. “No one will be able to lead the entire country.”
Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s vice-president who also left the country and whom many predict will mount armed resistance, was defiant after his departure: “I will never, ever & under no circumstances bow to d [sic] Talib terrorists,” he wrote on Twitter. “I won’t disappoint millions who listened to me. I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER.”
Many Afghans expressed fury at the US focus on evacuating its own citizens, leaving the local population at the mercy of the Taliban and its extremist ideology.
“I wish I could go to Kabul now and scream outside the US embassy, ‘We are also human beings like you and we also have the right to live and enjoy freedom’,” said a young woman in Herat, which fell to the Taliban a few days ago. She added that the Islamist fighters had already begun searching people’s homes for alcohol or weapons.
“How could the Americans hand us over to the Taliban?” she said.
The northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a traditional stronghold of fierce anti-Taliban resistance, fell to the insurgent group late on Saturday night after days of heavy fighting.
Political figures in the region fled, including anti-Taliban leaders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, who sought refuge in neighbouring Uzbekistan, according to local news reports.
Analysts said that the abrupt pace of the US drawdown, including abandoning the main US military facility at Bagram air base virtually overnight, had severely damaged morale among the Afghan forces, undermining their will to fight.
“What we’ve underestimated is the level of Taliban planning with regard to the withdrawal,” Rudra Chaudhuri, of King’s College London, said. “They had a very clear plan. The question is, how did the entirety of the US intelligence community not know this?”
Analysts said that some of Afghanistan’s most battle-hardened military leaders had tactically retreated to regroup and were likely to launch insurgencies.
“If anybody thinks it’s going to be a peaceful rule for Taliban or Afghanistan is going to be under their complete control and domination — no,” an Indian government official said. “There is always going to be this thorn in their backside.”
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Lauren Fedor and Katrina Manson in Washington