The Taliban’s relentless, rapid advance across Afghanistan brought them into the capital, Kabul, on Sunday as the last major city controlled by the government fell into chaos.
As it became clear that members of the Taliban had entered the gates of the capital, thousands of Afghans who had sought refuge there after fleeing the insurgents’ brutal military offensive watched with growing alarm as the local police seemed to fade from their usual checkpoints.
At 6:30 p.m. local time, the Taliban issued a statement that their forces were moving into police districts in order to maintain security in areas that had been abandoned by the government security forces. Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, posted the statement on his Twitter feed.
“The Islamic Emirates ordered its forces to enter the areas of Kabul city from which the enemy has left because there is risk of theft and robbery,” the statement said. The Taliban had been ordered not to harm civilians and not to enter individual homes,” it added. “Our forces are entering Kabul city with all caution.”
As the sun set behind the mountains in the western part of the city, the traffic was clogged up as crowds grew bigger, with more and more Taliban fighters appearing on motorbikes, police pickups and even a Humvee that once belonged to the American sponsored Afghan security forces.
Earlier in the afternoon Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal had announced that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul and his forces were maintaining security.
“The city’s security is guaranteed. There will be no attack on the city,” he said. “The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God Willing, power will be transferred.”
With rumors rife and reliable information hard to come by, the streets were filled with scenes of panic and desperation.
“Greetings, the Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping,” said Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, in a post shared widely on Facebook. Filming herself as she fled on foot, out of breath and clutching at her headscarf, she shouted at others to escape while the could.
“Hey woman, girl, don’t go that way,” she called out. “Some people don’t know what is going on,” she went on. “Where are you going? Go quickly.”
Wais Omari, 20, a street vendor in the city, said the situation was already dire and he feared for the future.
“If it gets worse, I will hide in my home,” he said.
The United States military stepped up its evacuation of American diplomatic and civilian staff. A core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul were being moved to a diplomatic facility at the international airport, where they would stay for an unspecified amount of time, according to a senior United States official.
On the civilian side of the airport, a long line of people waited outside the check-in gate, unsure if the flights they had booked out of the country would arrive.
After days in which one urban center after another fell to the insurgents, the last major Afghan cities that were still controlled by the government, other than Kabul, were seized in rapid succession over the weekend.
The insurgents took Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north, late on Saturday, only an hour after breaking through the front lines at the city’s edge. Soon after, government security forces and militias — including those led by the warlords Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor — fled, effectively handing control to the insurgents.
On Sunday morning, the Taliban seized the eastern city of Jalalabad. In taking that provincial capital and surrounding areas, the insurgents gained control of the Torkham border crossing, a major trade and transit route between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban offensive, which started in May when the United States began withdrawing troops, gathered speed over the past week. In city after city, the militants took down Afghan government flags and hoisted their own white banners.
Despite two decades of war with American-led forces, the Taliban have survived and thrived, without giving up their vision of creating a state governed by a stringent Islamic code.
After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, movie theaters were closed, the Kabul television station was shut down and the playing of all music was banned. Schools were closed to girls.
Despite many Afghans’ memories of years under Taliban rule before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the insurgents have taken control of much of the country in recent days with only minimal resistance.
Their rapid successes have exposed the weakness of an Afghan military that the United States spent more than $83 billion to support over the past two decades. As the insurgents’ campaign has accelerated, soldiers and police officers have abandoned the security forces in ever greater numbers, with the cause for which they risked their lives appearing increasingly to be lost.
Mr. Ghani, the Afghan president, had resisted pressure to step down. In a recorded speech aired on Saturday, he pledged to “prevent further instability” and called for “remobilizing” the country’s military. But the president was increasingly isolated, and his words seemed detached from the reality around him.
On Sunday, Tolo TV, one of Afghanistan’s main independent channels, relayed that “two sources” had said that Mr. Ghani had left the country, adding that it was not clear where he was headed. Lotfullah Najafizada, head of news at Tolo TV, said in a Twitter post that Mr. Ghani had departed with his core team.
Abdullah Abdullah, former chief excutive of the government and head of the High Peace Council, criticized Mr. Ghani for leaving his people and country. “That the former president of Afghanistan has left the country and its people in this bad situation, God will call him to account and the people of Afghanistan will make their judgment.”
The speed of the Taliban’s advance has thrown exit planning into disarray. While many analysts had believed that the Afghan military could be overrun after international forces withdrew, they thought it would happen over months and years. Now it risks being completed in a matter of days and weeks.
President Biden has accelerated the deployment of an additional 1,000e troops to Afghanistan to help get American citizens out. He made it clear that he would not reverse his decision to withdraw all combat forces.
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats,” Mr. Biden said on Saturday afternoon. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
KABUL, Afghanistan — As the Taliban stood at the gates of Kabul on Sunday, completing the near total takeover of Afghanistan two decades after the American military drove them from power, an eerie quiet that had enveloped the city in recent days transformed into chaos.
A frenzied evacuation of U.S. diplomats and civilians kicked into high gear, while Afghans made a mad dash to the banks, their homes and the airport. Crowds of people ran down the streets as the sound of gunfire echoed in downtown Kabul.
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.
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.
Rumors abounded: The Taliban were in the city, or weren’t they? Were the Americans securing the palace?
The streets of the city were packed and many shops were closed. Traffic barely moved.
At one bank in downtown Kabul, a mass of hundreds of people swelled outside, clambering to get in once doors opened. At one point, two men tried to climb a barred gate into the building.
At Abdul Haq Square in the center of the capital, five men who appeared to be Taliban fighters gathered as cars drove by showing their support for the militants.
Two other men, outside the American Embassy, said that they had just been freed by the Taliban from the giant Pul-e-Charkhi Prison.
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. 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.
Some police officers appeared to have abandoned their usual checkpoints, leading to speculation that the government was no longer in control.
At a bus station in Kabul, members of the Afghan security forces were seen changing into civilian clothes as they waited for transport to their hometowns.
While President Biden has defended his decision to hold firm and pull the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, his administration has become increasingly worried about images that could evoke a foreign policy disaster of the past: 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.
On Sunday, as a sense of panic gripped Kabul, guards at checkpoints inside the fortified green zone, who typically stop vehicles and check identity cards, lifted their metal barriers and waved all the cars through as the neighborhood drained of foreigners.
Convoys of armored vehicles raced to find safety in the headquarters of what had been the NATO center for its Operation Resolute Support. Others flocked to the Serena Hotel, a heavily fortified hotel popular among foreigners.
At the NATO center, military personnel handed out matchbox-size cardboard containers with ear plugs, and corralled people onto the helicopters. As the aircraft took off for the international airport, dozens of people evacuating got their last glimpses of the capital below — the fate of the city hanging in the balance.
Two Marines, standing by the tarmac at the Kabul airport, acknowledged that they were living a moment of history. A little earlier, they said, someone walked by after exiting one of the helicopters cradling a poorly folded American flag: It had just come down off the embassy.
— Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Christina Goldbaum, Sharif Hassan, Jim Huylebroek and Najim Rahim.
Confusion reigned in Washington early Sunday as the Taliban closed in on Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, with U.S. officials scrambling to determine whether the extremist group had, in fact, entered the city — and how safe Americans still there would be.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was expected to discuss the crisis on three television news shows on Sunday morning, hours after the American Embassy in Kabul closed and its small core of remaining diplomats fled to the capital’s international airport for safety.
Two senior U.S. military officials said that Taliban fighters were on the outskirts of the capital, and that some isolated Taliban groups were inside the city, but that they did not represent an organized advance at this point.
A senior U.S. defense official, however, adamantly denied that the Taliban had entered the capital itself.
Embassy staff had begun a vigorous effort to destroy documents and other sensitive materials before leaving the sprawling compound. A fourth senior U.S. official would not say whether the chargé d’affaires, Ross Wilson, and his immediate circle of advisers would remain at a diplomatic facility at the Kabul airport or return to the United States with other Americans who were being evacuated.
The Biden administration has repeatedly warned the Taliban against taking Kabul by force or even entering the city while the immense evacuation effort is underway, a process that could take days or even weeks to complete. Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American envoy who has been negotiating with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, has sought to broker a deal to reduce violence as the extremist group seized control of most of Afghanistan.
At the same time, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, has flown to the gulf region to oversee the military operations in Afghanistan. The Central Command’s forward headquarters is in Qatar.
A Defense Department official said Sunday that Bagram Air Base, the headquarters of the 20-year American war effort in Afghanistan, had also fallen to the Taliban.
Taliban fighters entered the base — which the United States turned over last month to Afghan security forces — on Sunday, the official said. More ominously, Taliban forces have also taken nearby Parwan prison, where thousands of prisoners, including Qaeda fighters, had been housed.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raced to the Pentagon on Sunday morning for meetings on the unfolding crisis.
Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, called Afghanistan’s rapid deterioration an “unmitigated disaster” and blamed President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump for the troop withdrawals that Mr. Sasse said caused the country’s undoing.
“History must be clear about this: American troops didn’t lose this war — Donald Trump and Joe Biden deliberately decided to lose,” the senator said in a statement on Sunday morning.
“The looming defeat will badly hurt American intelligence and give jihadis a safe haven in Afghanistan, again,” Mr. Sasse said. “America will regret this.”
With most of Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban, and with Kabul one of the last bastions held by government forces, many of the capital’s residents expressed fatalism and fear at the prospect of their home falling into the hands of the armed group.
“God forbid we will see war in Kabul,” said Sayed Akbar, 53, as he sold perfumes on a sidewalk in central Kabul. “People here have gone through 40 years of sorrows. The roads on which we are walking are built on people’s bones.”
Over the past few days, Afghans living in the country’s provinces have fled to Kabul, while many living there have sought to escape abroad. Some said they would have no choice but to fight, while most shared resignation over a reality that could be theirs within weeks: The Taliban were coming.
In the downtown Shar-e Naw neighborhood, where hundreds of people fleeing other parts of Afghanistan have arrived each day, three former students of economics at Jowzjan University, in the north of the country, said they had been forced to leave their city when the Taliban captured it.
“Taliban plundered our belongings,” said Parweez Talash, 24. “We fled so they don’t overrun our lives.”
The rapid advance of the Taliban has caught Western officials by surprise, and many countries said they would repatriate their citizens, close diplomatic missions and resettle Afghans.
But as they contemplated the takeover of Kabul by the armed group, some Afghans said they would have no choice but to try to get by. “I am just a vendor — why would they have any issue with me?” said Shams Ul-Haq, an 18-year-old selling onions at a market in central Kabul.
Many more said they feared that Taliban rule would erase all the advances made by Afghanistan in the past two decades, in areas including women’s rights, education and infrastructure.
“In the last 20 years, we rebuilt this country,” said Eqbal Osmani, 30. “We built roads. We built dams and infrastructure. We had finally brought livelihood and relative peace to this country. I’m most worried that there comes a day when it all gets sabotaged.”
At a mall in Shar-e Naw, three sisters in their 20s who were shopping for dresses for a wedding said they would probably be among the first targeted by the Taliban.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years until the United States invaded in 2001, and under their strict interpretation of Islam, women were forbidden to work, receive an education or even leave their homes without being accompanied by male relatives.
“Taliban don’t have mercy on anyone, let alone on young women like us,” said one of the sisters, Maryam Yusofi, while another, Basira, said she felt abandoned by the United States.
Ms. Yusofi, 27, said that if the Taliban took control of the entire country, Afghanistan would most likely “return to the dark days,” a feeling shared by other young Afghans who had grown up in a nation where U.S. and Afghan forces kept the group at bay.
Murtaza Sultani, 20, said there would be “no going forward.” Asked where he thought he would be in 10 years, Mr. Sultani said: “When the Taliban arrive, they might shut our business. Thirty-year-old Murtaza will probably be long dead.”
Jim Huylebroek and
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, the Taliban appeared to be on the verge of a complete takeover of Afghanistan. Planes departing the airport in Kabul, the capital, were filled with people fleeing the city.
With the Taliban on the verge of regaining power in Afghanistan, President Biden has defended his decision to leave the country after two decades of U.S. military involvement.
In a statement on Saturday, Mr. Biden said that the United States had invested nearly $1 trillion in Afghanistan over the past 20 years and had trained and equipped more than 300,000 Afghan security forces, including maintaining the Asian country’s air force.
“One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Mr. Biden said. “And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”
Mr. Biden’s statement came hours after the Taliban seized Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, but before the group captured the eastern city of Jalalabad on Sunday, leaving the capital, Kabul, as the only major city still in the hands of the Afghan government.
Mr. Biden partly blamed President Donald J. Trump for the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan, saying that the deal made with the Taliban in 2020 had set a deadline of May 1 this year for the withdrawal of American forces and left the group “in the strongest position militarily since 2001.”
“I faced a choice — follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict,” Mr. Biden said.
This year, a study group appointed by Congress urged the Biden administration to abandon the May 1 deadline and slow the withdrawal of American troops, saying that a strict adherence to the timeline could lead Afghanistan into civil war. Pentagon officials made similar entreaties, but Mr. Biden maintained his long-held position that it was time for Afghanistan to fend for itself.
Since international troops began withdrawing in May, the Taliban have pursued their military takeover far more swiftly than U.S. intelligence agencies had anticipated. On Saturday, Mr. Biden accelerated the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to help ensure the safe evacuation from Kabul of U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for the American government. That deployment will temporarily bring to 5,000 the number of American troops in the country.
In his statement, Mr. Biden warned the Taliban that “any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan, that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong U.S. military response.”
A high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, worries that she now will not be allowed to graduate.
The girl, Wahida Sadeqi, 17, like many Afghan civilians in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal and ahead of a Taliban victory, keeps asking the same question: What will happen to me?
The American withdrawal, which effectively ends the longest war on foreign soil in United States history, is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.
“I am so worried about my future. It seems so murky. If the Taliban take over, I lose my identity,” said Ms. Sadeqi, an 11th grader at Pardis High School in Kabul. “It is about my existence. It is not about their withdrawal. I was born in 2004, and I have no idea what the Taliban did to women, but I know women were banned from everything.”
Uncertainty hangs over virtually every facet of life in Afghanistan. It is unclear what the future holds and whether the fighting will ever stop. For two decades, American leaders have pledged peace, prosperity, democracy, the end of terrorism and rights for women.
Few of those promises have materialized in vast areas of Afghanistan, but now even in the cities where real progress occurred, there is fear that everything will be lost when the Americans leave.
The Taliban, the extremist group that once controlled most of the country and continues to fight the government, insist that the elected president step down. Militias are increasing in prominence and power, and there is talk of a lengthy civil war.
Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, who sought refuge in Pakistan, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.
The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.
Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it barred women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes — though this was already custom for many women in rural parts of the country.
“It is too early to comment on the subject. We need to know much more,” Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator who is involved in the continuing peace talks with the Taliban, said in April. “One thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country — no one can deny them their rights or status.”
If there is a consistent theme over two decades of war in Afghanistan, it is the overestimation of the results of the $83 billion the United States has spent since 2001 training and equipping the Afghan security forces and an underestimation of the brutal, wily strategy of the Taliban.
The Pentagon had issued dire warnings to President Biden even before he took office about the potential for the Taliban to overrun the Afghan Army. But intelligence estimates indicated that it might happen in 18 months, not within weeks.
Commanders did know that the afflictions of the Afghan forces had never been cured: the deep corruption, the failure by the government to pay many Afghan soldiers and police officers for months, the defections, the soldiers sent to the front without adequate food and water, let alone arms.
Mr. Biden’s aides say that the persistence of those problems reinforced his belief that the United States could not prop up the Afghan government and its military in perpetuity. In Oval Office meetings this spring, he told aides that staying another year, or even five, would not make a substantial difference and was not worth the risks.
In the end, an Afghan force that did not believe in itself and a U.S. effort that Mr. Biden, and most Americans, no longer believed would alter events combined to bring an ignoble close to America’s longest war. The United States kept forces in Afghanistan far longer than the British did in the 19th century, and twice as long as the Soviets — with roughly the same results.
For Mr. Biden, the last of four American presidents to face painful choices in Afghanistan but the first to get out, the debate about a final withdrawal and the miscalculations over how to execute it began the moment he took office.
“Under Trump, we were one tweet away from complete, precipitous withdrawal,” said Douglas E. Lute, a retired general who directed Afghan strategy at the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“Under Biden, it was clear to everyone who knew him, who saw him pressing for a vastly reduced force more than a decade ago, that he was determined to end U.S. military involvement,” Mr. Lute added, “but the Pentagon believed its own narrative that we would stay forever.”
He continued, “The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning: If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Sunday that the defeat of Afghan security forces that has led to the Taliban’s takeover “happened more quickly than we anticipated,” although he maintained the Biden administration’s position that keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan was not in American interests.
“This is heart-wrenching stuff,” said Mr. Blinken, who looked shaken, in an interview on CNN after a night that saw members of the Taliban enter the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the shuttering of the U.S. Embassy as the last remaining American diplomats in Afghanistan were moved to a facility at the city’s airport for better protection.
Mr. Blinken stopped short of saying that all American diplomats would return to the United States, repeating an intent to maintain a small core of officials in Kabul.
But he forcefully defended the administration’s decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, saying it could have been vulnerable to Taliban attacks had the United States reneged on an agreement brokered under President Donald J. Trump for all foreign forces to leave the country.
“We would have been back at war with the Taliban,” Mr. Blinken said, calling that “something the American people simply can’t support — that is the reality.”
He said it was not in American interests to devote more time, money and, potentially, casualties, to Afghanistan at a time that the United States was also facing long-term strategic challenges from China and Russia. But, Mr. Blinken said, American forces will remain in the region to confront any terrorist threat against the United States at home that might arise from Afghanistan.
He also appeared to demand more conditions for the prospect of recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government or establishing a formal diplomatic relationship with them.
Earlier, the Biden administration had said the Taliban, in order to acquire international financial support, must never allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a haven, must not take Kabul by force and must not attack Americans.
On Sunday, Mr. Blinken said the Taliban must also uphold basic rights of citizens, particularly women who gained new freedoms to go to work and school after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
There will be no recognition of a Taliban government “if they’re not sustaining the basic rights of the Afghan people, and if they revert to supporting or harboring terrorists who might strike us,” the secretary of state said.
Mr. Blinken’s comments were swiftly criticized by the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, who said the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan “is going to be a stain on this president and his presidency.”
“They totally blew this one,” Mr. McCaul said. “They completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban.”
“I hate to say this: I hope we don’t have to go back there,” he said. “But it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time.”