The morning after the Taliban installed themselves in the presidential palace in Kabul, seizing control over Afghanistan two decades after being toppled from power by the U.S. military, fears intensified on Monday about a return to the Taliban’s brutal rule and the threat of reprisal killings.
The last pockets of resistance by Afghan forces appeared to be crushed early Monday as the Taliban claimed to defeat a unit of elite special forces to take control of the airport in Kandahar.
In Kabul, the international airport was under the protection of foreign forces, including thousands of U.S. soldiers sent to the country to assist in a hasty evacuation.
It was a scene of desperation, sadness and panic.
As thousands swarmed the departures lounge — many waiting in vain for flights that failed to arrive — reports of gunfire in and around the airport began to circulate.
The U.S. Embassy, whose core employees had moved to a military-controlled section of the airport, urged U.S. civilians still in Kabul to stay away.
“There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place,” the embassy said in a statement late Sunday.
Worries pervaded Kabul, the capital, about the potential for violence as the Taliban filled the city and the Afghan government crumbled. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the insurgents entered the city on Sunday.
In remarkable scenes broadcast on Al Jazeera, Taliban leaders ensconced themselves in the palace only hours after Mr. Ghani fled — taking control over what was once one of the most secure locations in the country and a symbol of the nation that the United States spent so much money and sacrificed so much blood to uphold.
Though not a formal surrender, it might well have been.
In the video, the head of the Afghan presidential security guard shook hands with a Taliban commander in one of the presidential palace buildings and said he had accompanied the Taliban commander at the request of the senior Afghan government negotiator.
“I say welcome to them, and I congratulate them,” the official said.
Afghan officials in other cities were filmed handing over power to insurgent leaders. Former President Hamid Karzai said he had formed a council with other political leaders to coordinate a peaceful transition to a new Taliban government. Mr. Karzai also asked the head of the Presidential Protection Service to remain at his post and ensure that the palace was not looted.
The presence of the United States, whose withdrawal from Afghanistan starting in May set off a lightning-fast Taliban advance, was concentrated at the Kabul airport, one of the last parts of the city not in the insurgents’ hands.
Early Taliban actions in other cities under their control offered a glimpse of what the future might hold. In Kunduz, which fell on Aug. 8, they set up checkpoints and went door to door in search of absentee civil servants, warning that they would be punished if they did not return to work.
The change in atmosphere in Kabul was as swift as it was frightening for many who thought that they could build a life under the protection of their American allies.
Some in the city said the Taliban had already visited government officials’ homes. They entered the home of one former official in western Kabul and removed his cars and took over the home of a former governor in another part of town.
Residents of Kabul began tearing down advertisements that showed women without head scarves for fear of upsetting the Taliban, whose ideology excludes women from much of public life.
Some police officers were taken into custody by Taliban fighters, while others were seen changing into civilian clothes and trying to flee.
The Taliban said their forces had entered Kabul to ensure order and public safety.
A member of the Taliban’s negotiating team in Qatar told the BBC that “there will be no revenge” on civilians. “We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe,” Suhail Shaheen said on Sunday night. “There will be no revenge on anyone.”
The crowds outside Kabul’s international airport swelled and swelled on Monday morning, leaving the fences and security forces straining to contain the mass of people desperate to escape Afghanistan as the Taliban took control.
They rushed through the perimeter of the airport’s civilian section and swarmed the tarmac. Soldiers stood guard, many with weapons drawn.
As flights prepared to depart, people clung dangerously to the sides of military planes even as one taxied down the runway.
As the chaos spread, U.S. troops took control of the airport’s civilian section, while people rushed through the boarding gates and tried to push their way onto two commercial planes that were parked beside the terminal.
With civilian air travel temporarily halted, the arriving and departing military planes underscored the stark divide between foreign nationals and some Afghans who were a flight away from safety, and many more who would have no escape.
The U.S. government said that in the coming days it would evacuate thousands of American citizens, embassy employees and their families, and “particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”
The desperation was evident as some people broke down in tears, recognizing that their chance of escape was slim. Reports of gunfire also circulated throughout the morning.
Although the Taliban has seized control of the country, there is no government in any real sense. That made it hard to get reliable information, both for people inside the country and the wider world watching the events unfold.
Video from journalists recorded sounds of gunfire at the airport as people ran across the tarmac and approached gates from outside. The local news media aired video of young Afghans clinging to a plane as it taxied. Apache helicopters flew low over the crowds to clear the way for military planes.
The Afghan Civil Aviation Authority said on Monday that all civilian flights in and out of the Kabul airport had been suspended because of the chaos. The agency urged people to not travel to the airport.
But the tracking site Flightradar24 reported that a Boeing 777-300 from Turkish Airlines had departed for Istanbul after five hours on the ground.
Twenty years after the United States invaded Afghanistan, the airport was the nation’s final redoubt, one of the last places in the capital not controlled by the Taliban. The State Department said all embassy personnel had been evacuated to the airport, where they were being defended by the U.S. military.
But for the thousands of others hoping to find refuge, there was no escape.
The sight of gun-toting Taliban fighters behind President Ashraf Ghani’s ornate wooden desk, deep inside the Afghan presidential palace now under their control, served as visual confirmation that power in the country had fully shifted hands.
Few people imagined two decades ago — or even two weeks ago — that the heavily defended palace in a heavily defended capital would fall so swiftly. Just several days ago, Mr. Ghani addressed the nation from behind the same desk, in front of the same painting.
But hours after Mr. Ghani fled the country on Sunday, Taliban leaders were addressing the news media there, saying that they would use the palace to announce the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Their takeover of the palace, known as the Arg, was made peacefully. The head of the Presidential Protection Service, which has guarded it for most of the last two decades, shook hands with a Taliban commander and announced the handover.
The government official, Muhammadullah Amin, said he had been asked to meet and escort the Taliban commander, whom he addressed by the religious title Maulvi, into the palace by the government’s longtime chief negotiator with the Taliban.
“After a few contacts with Maulvi Saheb, I came here together and currently we are in the Gulkhana palace,” he said, referring to one of the palace buildings. “I say welcome to them, and I congratulate them.”
The Taliban commander stood and shook his hand. “I said, ‘We will take a selfie, and now we have taken it together,’” Mr. Amin said.
The encounter was filmed and aired by Al Jazeera on Sunday night and was widely shared on social media.
Mr. Amin said that Mr. Ghani had left from the palace via helicopter for Kabul’s international airport on Sunday afternoon and then boarded a flight out of the country. He did not say where the president had gone, but Mr. Ghani is thought to be in Tajikistan.
“In the beginning here, during the day, the situation was not good,” Mr. Amin said. “Everybody was frightened that, God forbid, something would happen here. Most of the officials left. I myself left.”
The peaceful seizing of the palace stood in contrast to past exchanges of power in Afghanistan, when the palace was the scene of violence and vandalism.
In 1978, rebel troops killed President Mohammad Daud inside the palace, which suffered severe damage during a daylong siege. The next year, President Noor Mohammad Taraki was mortally wounded in a gun battle inside the palace. His successor, Hafizullah Amin, was executed when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and stormed the palace in December 1979.
When the Taliban took control in 1996, fighters damaged parts of the buildings and much of the artwork, according to the government, but successive governments preserved artifacts and gold stored in underground vaults in the palace.
The people of Kabul were given reassurances that they would be safe, that a deal had been struck to avoid a full-fledged attack by the Taliban on their city. But for many Afghans, the scenes now playing out around them in their capital tell another story.
It was not just that their president had fled the country on Sunday. There were innumerable smaller signs that their world was changing.
Police posts has been abandoned, and the officers had shed their uniforms in favor of civilian garb. Posters of women at beauty salons were painted over — presumably to avoid retribution from Afghanistan’s new fundamentalist rulers. And on the east side of the city, inmates at Kabul’s main prison, many of them Taliban members, seized the opportunity to break out.
“This is the Day of Judgment,” declared one onlooker as he filmed the inmates carrying bundles of belongings away from the prison.
The Afghan interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal, said in the early afternoon that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul.
“We have ordered all Afghan National Security Forces divisions and members to stabilize Kabul,” he said in a video statement. “There will be no attack on the city. The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God willing, power will be transferred.”
Residents seemed unconvinced.
Many had fled to Kabul as their own cities fell. The capital, if nowhere else in their country, seemed that it might provide a haven for at least the near future.
But the future was nearer than almost anyone knew, and on Sunday, with the Taliban in Kabul, many people — among them President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials — were looking for an exit from the country itself.
Afghans and non-Afghans alike headed to the airport, where the scene was chaotic. Witnesses at the civilian domestic terminal said thousands of Afghans had crammed into the terminal and swarmed around planes on the tarmac, desperately seeking flights out.
With the evacuation of U.S. diplomats and some civilians underway on Sunday, helicopter after helicopter could be seen ferrying passengers to Kabul’s airport. But many Afghans could do little more than look on in despair.
The Taliban themselves appeared to be trying to strike a tone of reassurance. “Our forces are entering Kabul city with all caution,” they said in a statement.
But as the sun set behind the mountains, the traffic was clogged as crowds grew bigger. More and more Taliban fighters appeared on motorbikes, police pickups and even a Humvee that once belonged to the Afghan security forces.
With rumors rife and reliable information hard to come by, the streets were filled with scenes of panic and desperation. Some people posted videos of the chaos.
Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, filmed her own attempt to flee her neighborhood and posted it on Facebook. The video shows her fleeing on foot, out of breath and clutching at her head scarf as she urges people around her to get out while they can.
“Greetings,” she can be heard saying. “The Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping.”
EPA, via Shutterstock
Hamed Sarfarazi/Associated Press
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Rahmat Gul/Associated Press
Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
With their seizure of Jalalabad on Sunday, followed hours later by their entry into Kabul, the capital, the Taliban effectively took control of Afghanistan. Planes departing the airport in Kabul were filled with people fleeing the country.
As their homeland fell once again into the hands of the Taliban, more than 300 Afghan Americans went to the White House on Sunday to make their frustrations known.
Demonstrators, some with young children and babies in strollers, spilled into Lafayette Square, wielding signs that read “Help Afghan kids” and “America betrayed us.”
Some held up the flag of Afghanistan. Others draped it over their shoulders. They stood in a circle around organizers who used bullhorns to get their message out.
“We want justice,” they declared.
Among those attending the three-hour protest was Sohaila Samadyar, a 43-year-old banker in Washington, who was there with her 10-year-old son. Ms. Samadyar, who immigrated to America in 2000, said she wanted to raise awareness about Afghans still stuck in the country, like her brother and sister in Kabul.
Ms. Samadyar said that she had voted for President Biden in November, but that she now regretted that decision, “disappointed” in his handling of the war.
“He has basically disregarded the Afghan community,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how fast everything has changed.”
Yasameen Anwar, a 19-year-old sophomore in college, drove about three hours from Richmond, Va., with her friends and sister to attend the protest. Ms. Anwar said she was concerned about the future of women and children in Afghanistan.
“Before, when America was in Afghanistan, there was hope in that we were fighting the Taliban and that they could finally be defeated after 20 years,” Ms. Anwar said. “But by the Biden administration completely stepping out, it’s giving them no hope anymore.”
A first-generation Afghan American, Ms. Anwar said she had always dreamed of visiting her family’s home country. She now doubts that she will be able to go.
“It just seems like we’re never going to get peace,” Ms. Anwar said.
It was his first day as the Taliban-appointed mayor of Kunduz, and Gul Mohammad Elias was on a charm offensive.
Last Sunday, the insurgents seized control of the city in northern Afghanistan, which was in shambles after weeks of fighting. Power lines were down. The water supply, powered by generators, did not reach most residents. Trash and rubble littered the streets.
The civil servants who could fix those problems were hiding at home, terrified of the Taliban. So the insurgent-commander-turned-mayor summoned some to his new office, to persuade them to return to work.
But day by day, as municipal offices stayed mostly empty, Mr. Elias grew more frustrated — and his rhetoric grew harsher.
Taliban fighters began going door to door, searching for absentee city workers. Hundreds of armed men set up checkpoints across the city. At the entrance to the regional hospital, a new notice appeared on the wall: Employees must return to work or face punishment from the Taliban.
The experience of those in Kunduz offers a glimpse of how the Taliban may govern, and what may be in store for the rest of the country.
In just days, the insurgents, frustrated by their failed efforts to cajole civil servants back to work, began instilling terror, according to residents reached by telephone.
“I am afraid, because I do not know what will happen and what they will do,” said one, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “We have to smile at them because we are scared, but deeply we are unhappy.”
Nearly every shop in Kunduz was closed. Shopkeepers, fearing that their stores would be looted by Taliban fighters, had taken their goods home. Each afternoon, the streets emptied of residents, who feared airstrikes as government planes buzzed in the sky. And about 500 Taliban fighters were stationed around the city, staffing checkpoints on nearly every street corner.
At the regional hospital, armed Taliban members were keeping track of attendance. Out of fear, one health worker said, female staff members wore sky-blue burqas as they assisted in surgeries and tended to wounds from airstrikes, which still splintered the city each afternoon.
The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday morning after the Taliban appeared to take control of Afghanistan, where the U.N. has maintained an extensive aid operation since the early days of the American-led occupation two decades ago.
Secretary General António Guterres, who has repeatedly condemned attacks on Afghan civilians and implored the Taliban and government representatives to negotiate a peaceful settlement, was expected to speak at the emergency meeting. On Friday, as it was becoming increasingly clear that the Afghan government was collapsing as Taliban fighters walked into city after city, Mr. Guterres said the country was “spinning out of control.”
It remains unclear how the Taliban will be regarded by the United Nations should the militant movement declare itself the legitimate power in Afghanistan. Many countries in the 193-member organization have condemned the Taliban’s brutality and would probably not recognize such a declaration.
The United Nations employs roughly 3,000 employees who are Afghan and about 720 international staff members in Afghanistan, although roughly half of the international employees have been working outside the country since the pandemic started.
U.N. officials have repeatedly said there are no plans to evacuate any staff members from the country. But Mr. Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters last week that the organization was evaluating the security situation “hour by hour.”
The Taliban have pledged not to interfere in U.N. aid operations, but they attacked a U.N. office in the western city of Herat on July 30, and a local security official guarding the office was killed.
The main U.N. mission, based in Kabul, is known as the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or Unama. It was established in 2002 to help create a government after the American-led invasion.
The British Parliament will be recalled from its summer vacation this week to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan amid growing alarm about the humanitarian and strategic consequences of the Taliban’s advances.
Lawmakers will meet on Wednesday morning to debate the situation. Tom Tugendhat, a member of the governing Conservative Party who leads the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, told the BBC on Sunday that the West had “abandoned the Afghan people.”
Lisa Nandy, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on foreign issues, wrote on Twitter that there was “a catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan — with serious implications for Afghanistan and the U.K.”
The last time Parliament was recalled for an emergency session to discuss a similar foreign policy question was in 2014, during a crisis in Iraq.
Last month, Britain announced the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan to coincide with the American military’s pullout. But it said last week that it would redeploy 600 personnel to help evacuate its citizens.
Some senior lawmakers have expressed fears that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will come to be seen as a big strategic error.
“We assembled the most incredible, technologically advanced alliance the world has ever seen, and we’re being defeated by an insurgency that’s armed simply with AK-47s and R.P.G.s,” Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative lawmaker, told the British channel Times Radio. “We should have done more under the two decades of effort. We made some schoolboy errors.”
In the past two decades, 150,000 British military personnel have served in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand Province, and 457 lost their lives in the country. The combat missions ended in 2014, leaving behind only a small contingent for support work.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last month the international military presence in Afghanistan “was never intended to be permanent,” adding, “We and our NATO allies were always going to withdraw our forces: The only question was when — and there could never be a perfect moment.”