The morning after the Taliban installed themselves in the presidential palace in Kabul, seizing control over Afghanistan two decades after being toppled from power by the U.S. military, fears intensified on Monday about a return to the Taliban’s brutal rule and the threat of reprisal killings.
Kabul’s international airport was under the protection of foreign forces, including thousands of U.S. soldiers sent to the country to assist in a hasty evacuation.
It was a scene of desperation, sadness and panic.
Thousands of Afghans flooded the tarmac on Monday morning, at one point swarming around a departing U.S. military plane as it taxied down the runway.
Images of people clinging to the hulking aircraft even as it left the ground quickly circulated around the world. It seemed to capture the moment more vividly than words: a symbol of America’s military might, flying out of the country even as Afghans hung on against all hope.
The U.S. forces on site used helicopters to help clear the runway in the military section of the airport. American troops fatally shot at least two armed men who approached the Americans at the airport security perimeter and brandished their weapons, according to a U.S. military official.
Worries pervaded Kabul, the capital, about the potential for violence as the Taliban filled the city and the Afghan government crumbled. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the insurgents entered the city on Sunday.
In remarkable scenes broadcast on Al Jazeera, Taliban leaders ensconced themselves in the palace only hours after Mr. Ghani fled — taking control over what was once one of the most secure locations in the country and a symbol of the nation that the United States spent so much money and sacrificed so much blood to uphold.
Though not a formal surrender, it might as well have been.
In the video, the head of the Afghan presidential security guard shook hands with a Taliban commander in one of the palace buildings and said he had accompanied the Taliban commander at the request of the senior Afghan government negotiator.
“I say welcome to them, and I congratulate them,” the official said.
Afghan officials in other cities were filmed handing over power to insurgent leaders. Former President Hamid Karzai said he had formed a council with other political leaders to coordinate a peaceful transition to a new Taliban government. Mr. Karzai also asked the head of the Presidential Protection Service to remain at his post and ensure that the palace was not looted.
Early Taliban actions in other cities under their control offered a glimpse of what the future might hold. In Kunduz, which fell on Aug. 8, they set up checkpoints and went door to door in search of absentee civil servants, warning that any who did not return to work would be punished.
The change in atmosphere in Kabul was as swift as it was frightening for many who thought that they could build a life under the protection of their American allies.
Some in the city said the Taliban had already visited government officials’ homes. They entered the home of one former official in western Kabul and removed his cars and took over the home of a former governor in another part of town.
In other parts of the country, there were reports that fighters were searching for people they consider collaborators of the Americans and the fallen government.
Residents of Kabul began tearing down advertisements that showed women without head scarves for fear of upsetting the Taliban, whose ideology excludes women from much of public life.
Some police officers were taken into custody by Taliban fighters, while others were seen changing into civilian clothes and trying to flee.
The Taliban said their forces had entered Kabul to ensure order and public safety.
A member of the Taliban’s negotiating team in Qatar told the BBC that “there will be no revenge” on civilians. “We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe,” Suhail Shaheen said on Sunday night. “There will be no revenge on anyone.”
The crowds outside Kabul’s international airport swelled and swelled on Monday morning, leaving the fences and security forces straining to contain the mass of people desperate to escape Afghanistan as the Taliban took control.
They rushed through the perimeter of the airport’s civilian section and swarmed the tarmac. Soldiers stood guard, many with weapons drawn.
As flights prepared to depart, people clung dangerously to the sides of military planes even as one taxied down the runway.
As the chaos spread, U.S. troops took control of the airport’s civilian section, while people rushed through the boarding gates and tried to push their way onto two commercial planes that were parked beside the terminal.
With civilian air travel temporarily halted, the arriving and departing military planes underscored the stark divide between foreign nationals and some Afghans who were a flight away from safety, and many more who would have no escape.
The U.S. government said that in the coming days it would evacuate thousands of American citizens, embassy employees and their families, and “particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”
The desperation was evident as some people broke down in tears, recognizing that their chance of escape was slim. Reports of gunfire also circulated throughout the morning.
Although the Taliban has seized control of the country, there is no government in any real sense. That made it hard to get reliable information, both for people inside the country and the wider world watching the events unfold.
Video from journalists recorded sounds of gunfire at the airport as people ran across the tarmac and approached gates from outside. The local news media aired video of young Afghans clinging to a plane as it taxied. Apache helicopters flew low over the crowds to clear the way for military planes.
The Afghan Civil Aviation Authority said on Monday that all civilian flights in and out of the Kabul airport had been suspended because of the chaos. The agency urged people to not travel to the airport.
But the tracking site Flightradar24 reported that a Boeing 777-300 from Turkish Airlines had departed for Istanbul after five hours on the ground.
Twenty years after the United States invaded Afghanistan, the airport was the nation’s final redoubt, one of the last places in the capital not controlled by the Taliban. The State Department said all embassy personnel had been evacuated to the airport, where they were being defended by the U.S. military.
But for the thousands of others hoping to find refuge, there was no escape.
The sight of gun-toting Taliban fighters behind President Ashraf Ghani’s ornate wooden desk, deep inside the Afghan presidential palace now under their control, served as visual confirmation that power in the country had fully shifted hands.
Few people imagined two decades ago — or even two weeks ago — that the heavily defended palace in a heavily defended capital would fall so swiftly. Just several days ago, Mr. Ghani addressed the nation from behind the same desk, in front of the same painting.
But hours after Mr. Ghani fled the country on Sunday, Taliban leaders were addressing the news media there, saying that they would use the palace to announce the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Their takeover of the palace, known as the Arg, was made peacefully. The head of the Presidential Protection Service, which has guarded it for most of the last two decades, shook hands with a Taliban commander and announced the handover.
The government official, Muhammadullah Amin, said he had been asked to meet and escort the Taliban commander, whom he addressed by the religious title Maulvi, into the palace by the government’s longtime chief negotiator with the Taliban.
“After a few contacts with Maulvi Saheb, I came here together and currently we are in the Gulkhana palace,” he said, referring to one of the palace buildings.
The Taliban commander stood and shook his hand. “I said, ‘We will take a selfie, and now we have taken it together,’” Mr. Amin said.
The encounter, filmed and aired by Al Jazeera on Sunday night, was widely shared on social media.
Mr. Amin said that Mr. Ghani had left from the palace via helicopter for Kabul’s international airport on Sunday afternoon and then boarded a flight out of the country. He did not say where the president had gone, but Mr. Ghani is thought to be in Tajikistan.
“In the beginning here, during the day, the situation was not good,” Mr. Amin said. “Everybody was frightened that, God forbid, something would happen here. Most of the officials left. I myself left.”
The peaceful seizing of the palace stood in contrast to past exchanges of power in Afghanistan, when the palace was the scene of violence and vandalism.
In 1978, rebel troops killed President Mohammad Daud inside the palace, which suffered severe damage during a daylong siege. The next year, President Noor Mohammad Taraki was mortally wounded in a gun battle inside the palace. His successor, Hafizullah Amin, was executed when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and stormed the palace in December 1979.
When the Taliban took control in 1996, fighters damaged parts of the buildings and much of the artwork, according to the government, but successive governments preserved artifacts and gold stored in underground vaults in the palace.
Flights of U.S. military planes bringing thousands of Marine and Army reinforcements to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul were delayed for a few hours on Monday because of crowds of civilians on the runway, a military official said.
The official said the flights had eventually resumed when the runways were cleared.
About 3,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers were expected to be on the ground at the airport by Monday morning, with another 3,000 troops en route, Pentagon officials said.
A day after the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, U.S. warplanes and armed drones flew cover over the airport but did not carry out airstrikes, the official said.
The military official disclosed for the first time that Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, had met in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday with senior Taliban representatives.
In a 45-minute meeting, General McKenzie told the Taliban officials that the United States would defend itself during the evacuations of American personnel and Afghan civilians at the airport, and warned the insurgents not to interfere in the operation, the official said.
General McKenzie, who assumed command last month of the residual U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, flew to Qatar over the weekend to oversee the mission.
U.S. troops fatally shot at least two armed men who approached the Americans at the airport security perimeter and brandished their weapons, the military official said. But otherwise Taliban fighters did not appear to be interfering with the frenzied evacuation at the airport.
The people of Kabul were given reassurances that they would be safe, that a deal had been struck to avoid a full-fledged attack by the Taliban on their city. But for many Afghans, the scenes now playing out around them in their capital tell another story.
It was not just that their president had fled the country on Sunday. There were innumerable smaller signs that their world was changing.
Police posts has been abandoned, and the officers had shed their uniforms in favor of civilian garb. Posters of women at beauty salons were painted over — presumably to avoid retribution from Afghanistan’s new fundamentalist rulers. And on the east side of the city, inmates at Kabul’s main prison, many of them Taliban members, seized the opportunity to break out.
“This is the Day of Judgment,” declared one onlooker as he filmed the inmates carrying bundles of belongings away from the prison.
The Afghan interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal, said in the early afternoon that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul.
“We have ordered all Afghan National Security Forces divisions and members to stabilize Kabul,” he said in a video statement. “There will be no attack on the city. The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God willing, power will be transferred.”
Residents seemed unconvinced.
Many had fled to Kabul as their own cities fell. The capital, if nowhere else in their country, seemed that it might provide a haven for at least the near future.
But the future was nearer than almost anyone knew, and on Sunday, with the Taliban in Kabul, many people — among them President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials — were looking for an exit from the country itself.
Afghans and non-Afghans alike headed to the airport, where the scene was chaotic. At the civilian domestic terminal, thousands of Afghans crammed in and swarmed around planes on the tarmac, desperately seeking flights out.
With the evacuation of U.S. diplomats and some civilians underway on Sunday, helicopter after helicopter could be seen ferrying passengers to Kabul’s airport. But many Afghans could do little more than look on in despair.
The Taliban themselves appeared to be trying to strike a tone of reassurance. “Our forces are entering Kabul city with all caution,” they said in a statement.
But as the sun set behind the mountains, the traffic was clogged as crowds grew bigger. More and more Taliban fighters appeared on motorbikes, police pickups and even a Humvee that once belonged to the Afghan security forces.
With rumors rife and reliable information hard to come by, the streets were filled with scenes of panic and desperation.
Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, filmed her attempt to flee her neighborhood and posted it on Facebook. The video shows her fleeing on foot, out of breath and clutching at her head scarf as she urges people around her to get out while they can.
“Greetings,” she can be heard saying. “The Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping.”
There was gunfire at the airport and a dire warning from the State Department to shelter in place as the United States began the frantic evacuations of Americans and Afghan allies from the Afghan capital, Kabul, after it fell to the Taliban in one harrowing weekend.
In the end, even the evacuation of what one U.S. Defense Department official estimated could be 20,000 Americans and an untold number of Afghans somehow managed to reflect the story of the entire 20-year war: a disconnect between American diplomats and the reality on the ground.
In the last four months, as U.S. troops packed up and left the country under orders from President Biden, administration officials said the staff at the American Embassy in Kabul and State Department headquarters in Washington had hung on to hope that their presence in the country could instill some backbone in the Afghan government.
That didn’t happen.
On Sunday, American C-17 transport planes bringing in Marines — some 200 per load — landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport, then quickly filled with embassy staffers and returned to the skies.
The fall of Kabul leaves the Biden administration facing the once-unthinkable prospect of whether, and how, to engage with a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan’s capital — or cede all influence in the country to an extremist group that brutalized Afghans and harbored Osama bin Laden as he planned attacks on America.
The sudden exile of President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan on Sunday, just hours after President Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken each assured him of full American support, gives the Taliban little incentive to negotiate a transitional government for a country in crisis, said two U.S. officials involved in discussions inside the administration.
The officials said Mr. Ghani had fled his country without telling his cabinet or leaving plans for a government handover. That has all but ensured the Taliban’s ascent to power — one that the Biden administration can only hope will be carried out as peacefully as possible.
It also most likely extinguishes a long-stalled American effort for peace talks toward establishing a power-sharing system between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s elected leaders, and leaves U.S. officials hoping that a group that has defied nearly all pleas for moderation in recent months will protect some semblance of women’s and political rights and honor a pledge not to harbor Qaeda terrorists.
Mr. Blinken said the United States would support talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban “about the way forward.”
It was his first day as the Taliban-appointed mayor of Kunduz, and Gul Mohammad Elias was on a charm offensive.
Last Sunday, the insurgents seized control of the city in northern Afghanistan, which was in shambles after weeks of fighting. Power lines were down. The water supply, powered by generators, did not reach most residents. Trash and rubble littered the streets.
The civil servants who could fix those problems were hiding at home, terrified of the Taliban. So the insurgent-commander-turned-mayor summoned some to his new office, to persuade them to return to work.
But day by day, as municipal offices stayed mostly empty, Mr. Elias grew more frustrated — and his rhetoric grew harsher.
Taliban fighters began going door to door, searching for absentee city workers. Hundreds of armed men set up checkpoints across the city. At the entrance to the regional hospital, a new notice appeared on the wall: Employees must return to work or face punishment from the Taliban.
The experience of those in Kunduz offers a glimpse of how the Taliban may govern, and what may be in store for the rest of the country.
In just days, the insurgents, frustrated by their failed efforts to cajole civil servants back to work, began instilling terror, according to residents reached by telephone.
“I am afraid, because I do not know what will happen and what they will do,” said one, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “We have to smile at them because we are scared, but deeply we are unhappy.”
Nearly every shop in Kunduz was closed. Shopkeepers, fearing that their stores would be looted by Taliban fighters, had taken their goods home. Each afternoon, the streets emptied of residents, who feared airstrikes as government planes buzzed in the sky. And about 500 Taliban fighters were stationed around the city, staffing checkpoints on nearly every street corner.
At the regional hospital, armed Taliban members were keeping track of attendance. Out of fear, one health worker said, female staff members wore sky-blue burqas as they assisted in surgeries and tended to wounds from airstrikes, which still splintered the city each afternoon.
The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday morning after the Taliban appeared to take control of Afghanistan, where the U.N. has maintained an extensive aid operation since the early days of the American-led occupation two decades ago.
Secretary General António Guterres, who has repeatedly condemned attacks on Afghan civilians and implored the Taliban and government representatives to negotiate a peaceful settlement, was expected to speak at the emergency meeting. On Friday, as it was becoming increasingly clear that the Afghan government was collapsing as Taliban fighters walked into city after city, Mr. Guterres said the country was “spinning out of control.”
It remains unclear how the Taliban will be regarded by the United Nations should the militant movement declare itself the legitimate power in Afghanistan. Many countries in the 193-member organization have condemned the Taliban’s brutality and would probably not recognize such a declaration.
The United Nations employs roughly 3,000 employees who are Afghan and about 720 international staff members in Afghanistan, although roughly half of the international employees have been working outside the country since the pandemic started.
U.N. officials have repeatedly said there are no plans to evacuate any staff members from the country. But Mr. Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters last week that the organization was evaluating the security situation “hour by hour.”
The Taliban have pledged not to interfere in U.N. aid operations, but they attacked a U.N. office in the western city of Herat on July 30, and a local security official guarding the office was killed.
The main U.N. mission, based in Kabul, is known as the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or Unama. It was established in 2002 to help create a government after the American-led invasion.
In a chaotic retreat from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in recent days, pro-government soldiers streamed onto the Friendship Bridge, seeking safety on the other bank in neighboring Uzbekistan.
The scene echoed an iconic moment from 32 years ago in the failed Soviet war in Afghanistan, when it was the final exit route out of the country for the defeated Soviet Army.
Then, red flags fixed to the armored vehicles flapped in a winter wind as the departing Soviet troops drove and marched across the bridge on Feb. 15, 1989. That movement was meant to signal an organized, dignified exit after a decade of occupation and defeats.
The Biden administration had made a point of avoiding a similar ceremonial scene for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, a notion hardly imaginable now given the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed government on Sunday.
And the retreat on Thursday over the Friendship Bridge of soldiers loyal to the American-backed Afghan government, which collapsed just three days later, was chaotic.
The British Parliament will be recalled from its summer vacation this week to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan amid growing alarm about the humanitarian and strategic consequences of the Taliban’s advances.
Lawmakers will meet on Wednesday morning to debate the situation. Tom Tugendhat, a member of the governing Conservative Party who leads the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, told the BBC on Sunday that the West had “abandoned the Afghan people.”
Lisa Nandy, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on foreign issues, wrote on Twitter that there was “a catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan — with serious implications for Afghanistan and the U.K.”
The last time Parliament was recalled for an emergency session to discuss a similar foreign policy question was in 2014, during a crisis in Iraq.
Last month, Britain announced the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan to coincide with the American military’s pullout. But it said last week that it would redeploy 600 personnel to help evacuate its citizens.
Some senior lawmakers have expressed fears that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will come to be seen as a big strategic error.
“We assembled the most incredible, technologically advanced alliance the world has ever seen, and we’re being defeated by an insurgency that’s armed simply with AK-47s and R.P.G.s,” Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative lawmaker, told the British channel Times Radio. “We should have done more under the two decades of effort. We made some schoolboy errors.”
In the past two decades, 150,000 British military personnel have served in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand Province, and 457 lost their lives in the country. The combat missions ended in 2014, leaving behind only a small contingent for support work.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last month the international military presence in Afghanistan “was never intended to be permanent,” adding, “We and our NATO allies were always going to withdraw our forces: The only question was when — and there could never be a perfect moment.”