The Taliban’s arrival prompted the US to evacuate the embassy in full, leaving only a core of US diplomats at the airport for now.
Even as CH-47 helicopters shuttled American diplomats to the airport, US secretary of state Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the 1975 fall of Saigon.
“This is being done in a very deliberate way, it’s being done in an orderly way,” Blinken insisted to ABC News.
US officials reported gunfire near the airport on Sunday evening and urged civilians to stop coming before closing the airport to commercial flights, shutting one of the last avenues of escape for ordinary Afghans.
US C-17 transport planes were due to bring thousands of fresh American troops to the airport, then fly out again with US embassy staffers.
The Pentagon was now sending an additional 1000 troops, bringing the total to about 6000.
President Joe Biden and other top US officials have been stunned by the pace of the Taliban’s nearly complete takeover of Afghanistan, as the planned withdrawal of American forces urgently became a mission to ensure a safe evacuation.
The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse and the ensuing chaos posed the most serious test of US President Joe Biden as commander-in-chief, and he was the subject of withering criticism from Republicans who said that he had failed.
Biden campaigned as a seasoned expert in international relations and has spent months playing down the prospect of an ascendant Taliban while arguing that Americans of all political persuasions have tired of a 20-year war – a conflict that demonstrated the limits of money and military might to force a Western-style democracy on a society not ready or willing to embrace it.
Australia was part of a coalition which entered the country alongside US troops in 2001. 41 Australian ADF personnel died in the conflict.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told Al-Jazeera Mubasher TV that no diplomatic body or any of its headquarters was targeted, saying the group assured everyone it would provide safety for citizens and diplomatic missions.
“We are ready to have a dialogue with all Afghan figures and will guarantee them the necessary protection,” he told the Qatar-based channel on Sunday.
He said the group took every step responsibly and was keen on having peace with everyone.
Earlier, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the Associated Press the militant group was holding talks aimed at forming an “open, inclusive Islamic government”, with the group soon to announce the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
That was the name of the country under Taliban rule before the militants were ousted by US-led forces after the 9/11 attacks.
The Al-Jazeera news network later aired footage showing a group of Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace.
Massouma Tajik, a 22-year-old data analyst, was among hundreds of Afghans waiting anxiously in the Kabul airport to board an evacuation flight.
“I see people crying, they are not sure whether their flight will happen or not. Neither am I,” she said by phone.
Afghans fear that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country. The desperately poor – who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital – remained in parks and open spaces throughout the city.
#Kabul airport this evening. People are waiting near the runway to escape by air.#hkia #afghanistan pic.twitter.com/3wf3tu47h9
— Stefanie Glinski (@stephglinski) August 15, 2021
As the insurgents closed in Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani also flew out of the country.
“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” said Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council. “God should hold him accountable.”
Ghani later posted on Facebook that he had chosen to leave the country to avert bloodshed in the capital, without saying where he had gone.
Taliban fighters took over abandoned police posts and pledged to maintain law and order during the transition.
Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the upscale diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.
The Taliban have seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces.
The fall of Kabul marks the final chapter of America’s longest war, which began after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks masterminded by al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden, then harboured by the Taliban government.
Afghanistan’s acting defence 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 Taliban earlier insisted their fighters wouldn’t enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses and said they’d offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
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 the reports of gunfire at the airport raised the spectre of more violence.
One female journalist, weeping, sent voice messages to colleagues after armed men entered her apartment building and banged on her door.
“What should I do? Should I call the police or Taliban?” Getee Azami cried. It wasn’t clear what happened to her after that.
The UN has expressed concern about the treatment of girls and woman under Taliban rule. Previously, between 1996 and 2001, women could not work, girls were not allowed to attend school and women had to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to venture out of their homes.
The UN Security Council will today be briefed about Afghanistan. In an August 3 statement, agreed by consensus, the 15 council members “declared that they do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate” (Taliban rule)”.
The United Nations has about 3000 national staff and about 300 international staff on the ground in Afghanistan.
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