Taliban terrorists entered Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on Sunday as the United States evacuated diplomats from its embassy by helicopter and a government minister said power would be handed over to an interim administration.
A senior interior ministry official told Reuters the Taliban terrorists were coming “from all sides” into the capital but gave no further details.
There were no reports of fighting. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the group was in talks with the government for a peaceful surrender of Kabul.
“Taliban fighters are to be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed,” the statement said.
The entry into the capital caps a lightning advance by the Islamist terrorists, who were ousted from Kabul 20 years ago by the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. The collapse of the Afghan government defense has stunned diplomats, just last week, a U.S. intelligence estimate said Kabul could hold out for at least three months.
There was no immediate word on the situation from President Ashraf Ghani. A palace official said he was in emergency talks with U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and top NATO officials.
Power would be handed over to a transitional administration, the government’s acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, said in a Twitter post on the Tolo news channel. “There won’t be an attack on the city, it is agreed that there will be a peaceful handover,” he said without elaborating.
A Twitter post from the Afghan presidential palace account said firing had been heard at a number of points around Kabul but that security forces, in coordination with international partners, had control of the city.
Many of Kabul’s streets were choked by cars and people either trying to rush home or reach the airport, residents said.
Afghans have fled the provinces to enter Kabul in recent days, fearing a return to hardline Islamist rule.
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.
Choppers at Embassy
U.S. officials said diplomats were being ferried by helicopters to the airport from its embassy in the fortified Wazir Akbar Khan district. More American troops were being sent to help in the evacuations after the Taliban’s surge brought the terrorist group to Kabul in a matter of days.
“We have a small batch of people leaving now as we speak, a majority of the staff are ready to leave,” a U.S. official told Reuters on Sunday. “The embassy continues to function.”
The Islamist group took control of the key eastern city of Jalalabad on Saturday after the governor surrendered to avoid “casualties and destruction,” a Jalalabad-based Afghan official told Reuters. “Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives.”
This saw the main easterly highway leading out of the country into Pakistan cut off from the capitol, which has a population of 5 million.
A second security official said that the Taliban had agreed to give safe passage to government officials and security forces to leave Jalalabad.
Late Saturday, the Taliban also seized the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with little fighting.
After U.S.-led forces withdrew the bulk of the their remaining troops in the last month, the Taliban campaign made quick advances to claim territory.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday authorized the deployment of 5,000 troops to help ensure an “orderly and safe” drawdown of U.S. personnel, other allied personnel, and evacuate Afghan citizens who helped the U.S.-led mission, including translators, journalists, and human rights activists. A U.S. defense official said that included 1,000 newly approved troops from the 82nd Airborne Division. Allied countries have also sent troops to help with the evacuation.
The Biden administration also committed to addressing future terrorist threats from Afghanistan and helping Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders to pursue a political settlement.
Meanwhile, Biden warned the Taliban that the United States will take a strong military response if U.S. personnel are endangered.
Equipment Falling Into Enemy Hands
Taliban terrorists entered Mazar-i-Sharif on Saturday virtually unopposed as security forces escaped up the highway to neighboring Uzbekistan, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the north, provincial officials said. Unverified video on social media showed Afghan army vehicles and men in uniforms crowding the iron bridge between the Afghan town of Hairatan and Uzbekistan.
Two influential militia leaders supporting the government against the Taliban—Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, who are among the regional leaders who have been fighting the Taliban since the days of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen and the collapse of the Afghan communist party—also fled. Noor said on social media that the Taliban had been handed control of Balkh province, where Mazar-i-Sharif is located, due to a “conspiracy.”
“Despite our firm resistance, sadly, all the government and the #ANDSF equipments were handed over to the #Taliban as a result of a big organised & cowardly plot,” Noor wrote on Twitter. “They had orchestrated the plot to trap Marshal Dostum and myself too, but they didn’t succeed.”
In a statement late on Saturday, the Taliban claimed its rapid gains showed it was popularly accepted by the Afghan people and reassured both Afghans and foreigners that they would be safe.
The Taliban “will, as always, protect their life, property, and honor and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” it said, adding that diplomats and aid workers would also face no problems.
Biden has faced rising domestic criticism as the Taliban have taken city after city far more quickly than predicted. The president pushed back a planned pullout date, initiated by Republican former President Donald Trump, by several months to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan by Aug. 31, shattering an agreement with the Taliban.
Biden said it is up to the Afghan military to hold its own territory. “An endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me,” Biden said on Saturday.
Ghani on Saturday held talks with local leaders and international partners, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Ghani and Blinken discussed urgent efforts to reduce violence in Afghanistan, the State Department said.
Qatar, which has been hosting so-far inconclusive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, said it had urged the terrorists to cease fire. Ghani has given no sign of responding to a Taliban demand that he resign as a condition for any ceasefire.
Reuters contributed to this report.