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Taliban reach Kabul as US prepares to evacuate its embassy
Afghanistan Update

Taliban reach Kabul as US prepares to evacuate its embassy

5 min. 15.08.2021
Fighters from the militant group reached outskirts of Kabul on Sunday as the US and other nations raced to evacuate their citizens
Taliban fighters
Taliban fighters
Photo credit: AFP

The Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday and ordered its forces to remain just outside the Afghan capital ahead of talks for a peaceful transition of power, cementing its renewed grip on the country two decades after the US ousted it from power.

Media reported a frenzy of helicopter flights ferried passengers from the US embassy in Kabul on Sunday. The US will completely pull out all embassy personnel within three days, CNN reported, citing people familiar with the situation. It added that a core of US officials would remain at Kabul airport, currently the only route out of the country.

Fighters from the militant group reached the outskirts of Kabul on Sunday as the US and other nations raced to evacuate their citizens, the culmination of a three-week offensive in which the Taliban seized the bulk of territory in the country. Taliban forces now hold all of Afghanistan’s border crossings, the Associated Press said.

The news agency added that Afghan forces had surrendered Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, which the US handed over to Afghanistan last month after nearly 20 years.

“The Islamic Emirate instructs all its forces to stand at the gates of Kabul, not to try to enter the city,” the Taliban said in a statement on Sunday, referring to the group’s formal name. “Negotiations are under way to ensure that the transition process is completed safely and securely, without putting the lives, property and honour of anyone in danger.”

It was unclear exactly how the talks would take place. The AP reported that Taliban negotiators were heading to the presidential palace in Kabul to prepare for a transfer of power. Yet Bismillah Mohammadi, Afghanistan’s acting defence minister, said “the president has extended all the authority to a delegation that is heading to Doha tomorrow for talks with the Taliban.”

The militant group has sought to reassure the country and the world that it will act responsibly as it prepares to resume power, following the swift collapse of a US-trained Afghan army after President Joe Biden ordered American troops to withdraw by Aug. 31. Countries including the US, Canada, Germany, Australia and the UK have been moving to pull their diplomats out as the security situation worsens, even though Russia is planning to stay.

On Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said on social media that national forces have Kabul “under control and there’s no need for the people to worry.” But some key Afghan officials suggested it was just a matter of time before the Taliban took power.

“Until the transfer of the power, the security of Kabul is our responsibility,” Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister, said in a video message posted on the ministry’s Facebook page.

Biden on Saturday boosted the US troop deployment in an attempt to ensure an “orderly and safe drawdown.” The authorization adds about 1,000 US personnel to the deployment of 3,000 Marines and soldiers announced this week and 1,000 troops already at the airport and the embassy, according to a defense official. Helicopters landed at the American embassy compound in Kabul early Sunday, the AP reported.

Biden, who’s spending the weekend at Camp David, again defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after 20 years -- America’s longest war.

“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan -- two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to recall parliament next week to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Johnson also had an emergency meeting Friday with top-level government officials.

‘Watching in Horror’

Thousands of Afghan people fled to Kabul in the face of the Taliban advance, with the crisis threatening to spill outside the country’s borders and send waves of refugees as far afield as Europe. That has big powers including China and Russia -- both of which engaged the Taliban in talks and have argued for a “political solution” involving the group -- watching closely. Neighbouring Iran said Sunday it will give temporary refuge to Afghans fleeing the Taliban.

The rapid, domino-like fall of Afghanistan’s cities to the Taliban has shocked many US officials and ramped up bipartisan criticism of Biden’s exit strategy. The US has been surprised -- and frustrated -- by the Afghan army’s inability or unwillingness to fight back.

American adversaries including Russia and China have seized on the situation to criticise the US “The world is watching in horror the results of Washington’s latest historical experiment,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a Telegram post Sunday. Russia said it’s not planning to evacuate its embassy in Kabul, with Tass quoting a Taliban spokesman saying the group has good relations with Moscow.

‘Fight for Themselves’

Biden has faced mounting criticism from human rights groups and some members of his own party, as reports emerge the Taliban is already bringing a return to attacks on women and other abuses reminiscent of its earlier rule. His administration has argued the Afghan army must take the reins while the US provides military and financial support.

“They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation,” Biden told reporters last week.

During Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, women were prohibited from working, attending high school or appearing in public without a burqa, a garment that covers the wearer’s entire body, head, and face. In recent weeks, Taliban fighters in northern areas told some female employees of branches of Afghanistan International Bank to leave work and go home.

Late Saturday, the Taliban released a lengthy statement seeking to reassure Afghans and the international community. It denied reports that it had killed prisoners and forced villagers to hand over their daughters to marry Taliban soldiers, while adding that the group would respect public property, redeploy bureaucrats and military officers, and provide amnesty for anyone who “helped the invaders.”

The Taliban also said it would avoid seizing private property and create “a safe and conducive environment” for business. It also said neighboring countries should have confidence: “We assure all our neighbors that we will not create any problems for them.”

“No one should leave their area and country,” the Taliban statement said, referring to those areas it had seized. “They shall live a normal life; our nation and country need services, and Afghanistan is our joint home that we will build and serve together

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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