KABUL, Afghanistan — As the Taliban stood at the gates of Kabul, completing the near total takeover of Afghanistan two decades after the American military drove them from power, a chaotic and frenzied evacuation of U.S. diplomats and civilians kicked into high gear on Sunday.
Helicopter after helicopter — including massive Chinooks with their twin engines and speedy Black Hawks that had been the workhorse of the grinding war — touched down and then took off loaded with passengers. Some dispensed flares overhead, a new addition to Kabul’s skyline.
Those being evacuated included a core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul, according to a senior administration official. They were being moved to a compound at the international airport, where they would stay for an unspecified amount of time, the official said.
The tarmac of the airport was filled with a constellation of uniforms from different nations. They joined contractors, diplomats and civilians all trying to catch a flight out of the city. Those who were eligible to fly were given special bracelets, denoting their status as noncombatants.
But for millions of Afghans, including tens of thousands who assisted the U.S. efforts in the country for years, there were no bracelets. They were stuck in the city, wondering not if but when the Taliban would enter.
The streets of the city were packed and many shops were closed. Lines at banks were growing unruly. Traffic barely moved. Rumors abounded: The Taliban were in the city, or weren’t they? Were the Americans securing the palace?
On one street downtown, a pair of police officers said that they were readying for a fight with the Taliban and had changed into militia clothing. Sporadic gunfire echoed in the distance.
Another group of officers, none with weapons, seemed more curious about whether a house in the once coveted and protected green zone was now empty.
While President Biden has defended his decision to hold firm and pull the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the administration has become increasingly worried about images that could evoke another foreign policy disaster: the fall of Saigon at the end of the conflict in Vietnam in 1975.
The swift advance of the Taliban has stunned many in the White House.
The Pentagon issued dire warnings to Mr. Biden even before he took office about the potential for the Taliban to overrun the Afghan Army, but intelligence estimates, now shown to have badly missed the mark, assessed that it might happen in 18 months, not in weeks.
On Sunday, as a sense of panic gripped Kabul, convoys of armored vehicles raced to find safety in the headquarters of what had been the NATO center for its Operation Resolute Support. Apache gunships circled overhead.
The goal of the NATO operation had been to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces. All that’s left appears to be a name consigned to the history books.