The Afghanistan capital city of Kabul fell to the Taliban on Sunday, just over one week after U.S. troops withdrew, underscoring one of the worst American foreign policy debacles since the Vietnam war.
Twenty years after the extremist group lost control of Afghanistan, insurgent fighters surrounded Kabul on Sunday morning and sent negotiators to hold talks with the national government in the presidential palace. Helicopters ferried diplomats off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
By Sunday night, the Taliban was celebrating its return to power.
“Thanks to God, the war is over in the country,” a spokesperson for the Taliban told Al Jazeera. “We have reached what we were seeking.”
President Ashraf Ghani had by then fled the country, and the U.S. and other Western powers were desperately fighting to keep the Kabul airport open for evacuations. The AP reported that the Taliban planned to declare the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—its old name before the U.S. ousted it in 2001—as millions of Afghans now face an uncertain fate.
Ghani made no public appearance to explain his flight. He conceded his government’s defeat in a statement on Facebook.
“In order to avoid a flood of blood, I thought it was best to get out,” the former president wrote. “Taliban have won the battle of sword and guns and now they are responsible for protecting the countrymen’s honor, wealth and dignity.”
As the Taliban overtook the presidential palace, fighters put down their weapons to recite the Surah Nasr verses from the Quran, according a source in Kabul: “When the victory of Allah has come and the conquest. And you see the people entering into the religion of Allah in crowds. Then exalt [Him] with praise of your Lord and ask forgiveness of Him. Indeed, He is ever Accepting of repentance.”
A 30-year-old Afghan soldier from Jallaabd, who was just ten when the U.S. freed his country from the Taliban’s grip, told The Daily Beast he “can’t believe what happened.” On Saturday night, he says he and his contingent were told by their superior to surrender. “We did, we had a plan to fight for a while but no one asked us for fight. This is the most ridiculous moment of my life.”
He says he and other soldiers wanted to fight. “This is a drama that happened and we still have no idea what will be the fate of our country.”
Meanwhile, a Taliban fighter named Hafiz Haji told The Daily Beast, “We reached the presidential palace gate—the presidential guards quickly got down off their post... we are inside the place, we are now in the palace, we did it indeed! Captured everything, lots of weapons in the palace depot.”
A source in Kabul told The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity that the Taliban had sought a peaceful transfer of power without fighting. They also revealed that Ali Ahmad, the former minister of interior, will likely be made the head of an interim caretaker government.
A senior Afghan official in Kabul expressed his frustration to The Daily Beast as the situation deteriorated throughout the day. “The fall of Kabul dishonors the sacrifice of over 150,000 Afghan lives, over 3,000 of NATO soldiers’ lives, 20 years of reconstruction efforts and over a trillion U.S. dollars. It is the beginning of hopelessness and bottomless uncertainty for the long-suffering Afghans. May Allah protect us because all the worldly superpowers came, killed us, failed and left us in lurch.”
The statement also said, “we don’t want a single, innocent Afghan civilian to be injured or killed as we take charge but we have not declared a ceasefire.” Yet by Sunday afternoon, an Afghan official confirmed to the Associated Press that troops surrendered Bagram air base to Taliban—that base is home to prison housing 5,000 inmates including many Taliban fighters who will almost undoubtedly be freed.
On Sunday afternoon, several high-ranking Afghan officials were spotted in the VIP lounge at Kabul airport, according to CNN, presumably ready to leave the country in the hands of the Taliban. A few hours later, the airport descended into scenes of chaos as Western officials and Afghans rushed to leave the country.
Local media reported earlier on Sunday that senior Afghan government officials were already saying they would hand over power to a transitional administration, and a Taliban spokesman told CNN talks about a handover were underway. Among those at the negotiating table with the Taliban were former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, who wrote on Facebook he would be staying in the country. “Dear residents of Kabul; my intention is to remain with you here, along with my family, my daughters, my children,” he wrote on Sunday. “And I hope that the issues of our country and our capital city shall be resolved peacefully and through negotiations.” As the day wore on, a source briefed on the situation said a high-level Afghan government delegation would be traveling to Doha “soon” to continue talks with Taliban representatives.
The utter collapse of the Afghan army—after years of training by the U.S.—is a humiliation for President Biden just weeks after he ordered troops out of the country. The threat to millions of women and children under Islamist rule will be a permanent stain on his legacy.
A female Afghan reporter and news presenter told The Daily Beast, “Today was sad day ... When I got back to my office, everyone had left. I cried ... I saw people in the street running in the streets.” She noted that she was born in 1993, when the Taliban had just come to power and banned women from schooling or holding jobs. “I was proud of last 20 years of achievements, but we lost all 20 years of achievement so easily like a dream—why?”
“I never, ever thought of this end. All my colleagues were rushing home with terror and worry in their eyes ... we are betrayed by everyone, by the world, by our leaders and soldiers, we lost everything. We are shattered. Afghanistan is going back to a dark era...”
A female doctor told The Daily Beast that she saw the Taliban in her street and “felt my dream being bulldozed.”
“We Afghans were lucky for 20 years,” she said. “I can only cry, that’s all ... we are not part of the globe any more, we are [back] in the dark ages.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was still tweeting about “diplomatic and political efforts” on Saturday as the Taliban marched towards the capital. On Sunday, he told Jake Tapper that the situation was going according to plan. When Tapper asked if it was indeed a “Saigon moment,” he said no, despite U.S. diplomats being ferried by helicopter off the embassy rooftop as he spoke.
One source familiar with the talks between the U.S. and Afghanistan told The Daily Beast that, in addition to requests for a conditions-based withdrawal, Afghan officials asked the Biden administration to delay the move at least until October. Fighting in Afghanistan is often seasonal with extended lulls in combat during the winter months when snow and cold weather makes movement more difficult.
Afghan officials had hoped that a drawback timed with the beginning of winter could buy them more time to strengthen defenses against the Taliban. But the Biden administration pushed ahead with its own timeline.
The Taliban has largely taken Afghanistan without much of a fight, leaving the spoils of war—including military equipment and ammunition supplied by the U.S.—for the militants to further bolster their upper hand.
In the last few weeks, Afghanistan’s air force became a sticking point in negotiations between the Biden administration and Afghan officials, according to one person familiar with the talks.
The country’s mostly U.S.-provided air fleet was dependent on foreign contractors to assist with maintenance. As the U.S. withdrawal took hold, the Biden administration refused to allow contractors into the country to service the aircraft, effectively grounding some of the Afghan Air Force at the same time as the U.S. had withdrawn direct air support to Afghan forces.
In the interim, Afghan air crews were forced to get creative. Maintenance personnel had to rely on Zoom calls with American experts in order to figure out how to maintain the aircraft left behind by the Americans, according to the source.
With the Taliban’s rapid advance and collapse of Afghan security forces, maintenance of the Afghan Air Force is now a mostly moot issue. Photos posted to social media show Taliban fighters capturing U.S.-provided A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft and MD-530F helicopters.
Former British International Development Secretary Rory Stewart told the BBC on Sunday, “Everything is going wrong... schools are shutting down across the country, clinics are shutting down across the country, people are taking refuge in their homes, looting is taking place.”
A civil society activist and medical student from Herat lamented over the looming uncertainty in Afghanistan following the fall of Kabul on Sunday. She belonged to a poor family, she told The Daily Beast, and noted, “It is the worst day of my life. My family has not gone out in weeks. We are running out of food, we feel helpless. My mother is sick.”
Those who can get out will easily create a humanitarian refugee disaster, as Afghanistan’s debacle becomes the world’s problem once again. An AFP reporter in Herat described how the Taliban made itself at home in the office that once housed the former Herat governor on Saturday. There, they “sat on couches—some cradling American military rifles—as they jotted down names and reviewed lists spread on a glass-top coffee table.”
Among those on the list are soldiers who have been granted a sort of “immunity” for giving up easily. Taliban member Najeebullah Karokhi told the AFP that around 3,000 people were given such amnesty. “Those who are from other provinces will be provided a three-day temporary amnesty letter so they can get to their home provinces, where they need to get another long-term amnesty letter from our officials,” he said.
Those likely not receiving any reprieve are women, who stand to lose the most as Afghanistan falls back in time. The last time the Taliban governed Afghanistan— from 1996 to 2001—they banned women from going to school or working. Many fear an almost certain return to those times, including Afghan lawmaker Farzana Kochai, who told the BBC in Kabul that women should be afraid of what happens under Taliban control. “For the women, the situation is as worse as it was expected,” she said. “Women will be jailed in their houses, is that what will happen, is that what it will be like? For now, yes. but we’ll see if it changes.”
As American troops returned to the capital to ferry diplomats and select Afghan collaborators to safety on Sunday, the Taliban for the moment waited at the gates. But it’s unknown for how long their safe passage will be guaranteed. Chaos loomed inside the city with people scrambling to stock up on vital supplies if they weren’t on their way out of town. And even some who were found themselves stuck. An Emirates flight from Dubai to Kabul abandoned its approach to on Sunday and said no further flights would be traveling to the Afghan capital any time soon. “I don’t know, they can’t go to anywhere, there’s nowhere left,” Kochai said Sunday. “They’re saying that the flights are full and we are stuck here, those who are going to go out and you know, where can they go, they have no choice, they have to stay here.”