KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s embattled president left the country Sunday, joining his fellow citizens and foreigners in a stampede fleeing the advancing Taliban and signaling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.
The Taliban, who for hours had been on the outskirts of Kabul, announced soon after they would move further into a city gripped by panic where helicopters raced overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
Civilians fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country as well, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings. The desperately poor — who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital — remained in their thousands in parks and open spaces throughout the city.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the U.S. pullout from Vietnam, as many watched in disbelief at the sight of helicopters landing in the embassy compound.
President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country, two officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief journalists. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed that Ghani had left.
“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” Abdullah said. “God should hold him accountable.”
In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces. Just days earlier, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
Instead, the Taliban swiftly defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swaths of the country, even though they had some air support from the U.S. military. But a peace deal with the U.S. limited direct military action targeting them, allowing them to prepare and move quickly to seize key areas when President Joe Biden announced his plans to withdraw all American forces by the end of this month.
Many quickly drew comparisons between the fall of Kabul — helicopters rumbling overhead evacuating American diplomats — to the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which saw even more chaotic airborne rescues. Pressed on CNN about it, Blinken said: “This is not Saigon.” However, he acknowledged the “hollowness” of the Afghan security forces.
“From the perspective of our strategic competitors around the world, there’s nothing they would like more than see us in Afghanistan for another five, 10, 20 years,” he said. “It’s simply not in the national interest.”
On Sunday, the insurgents entered the outskirts of Kabul but initially remained outside of the city’s downtown. Meanwhile, Taliban negotiators in Kabul discussed the transfer of power, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. It remained unclear when that transfer would take place and who among the Taliban was negotiating.
The negotiators on the government side included former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah, who has been a vocal critic of Ghani.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the closed-doors negotiations, described them as “tense.” Karzai himself appeared in a video posted online, his three young daughters around him, saying he remained in Kabul.
“We are trying to solve the issue of Afghanistan with the Taliban leadership peacefully,” he said, while the roar of a passing helicopter could be heard overhead.
Afghanistan’s acting defense minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, didn’t hold back his criticism of the fleeing president.
“They tied our hands from behind and sold the country,” he wrote on Twitter. “Curse Ghani and his gang.”
The insurgents tried to calm residents of the capital, insisting their fighters wouldn’t enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses. They also said they’d offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
“No one’s life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk,” the insurgents said in a statement.
But there have been reports of revenge killings and other brutal tactics in areas of the country the Taliban have seized in recent days.
And on Sunday, panic set in as many rushed to leave the country through the Kabul airport, the last route out of the country as the Taliban now hold every border crossing. NATO said it was “helping to maintain operations at Kabul airport to keep Afghanistan connected with the world.”
One Afghan university student described feeling betrayed as she watched the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy.
“You failed the younger generation of Afghanistan,” said Aisha Khurram, 22, who is now unsure of whether she’ll be able to graduate in two months’ time. “A generation … raised in the modern Afghanistan were hoping to build the country with their own hands. They put blood, efforts and sweat into whatever we had right now.”
The U.S. decided a few days ago to send in thousands of troops to help evacuate some personnel, and two officials said Sunday that American diplomats were being moved from the embassy to the airport. Military helicopters shuttled between the embassy compound and the airport, where a core presence will remain for as long as possible given security conditions.
The officials were not authorized to discuss diplomatic movements and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The flights began a few hours after the Taliban seized the nearby city of Jalalabad — which had been the last major city besides the capital not in their hands.
Meanwhile, wisps of smoke could be seen near the embassy’s roof as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, according to two American military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation. The smoke grew heavier over time in the area, home to other nation’s embassies as well.
Afghan officials said the militants also took the capitals of Maidan Wardak, Khost, Kapisa and Parwan provinces on Sunday.
The insurgents also seized the land border at Torkham, the last not in their control, on Sunday. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told local broadcaster Geo TV that Pakistan halted cross-border traffic there after the militants seized it.
Later, Afghan forces at Bagram air base, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. The prison at the former U.S. base held both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.