The Taliban has entered the capital and wants a transfer of power within days, reports Kim Sengupta from Kabul
Taliban fighters have come into Kabul after capturing the last remaining major cities from the government, and tightening the noose around the capital by systematically cutting off every route out to the rest of the country.
There is now deep fear of what the future holds for this shattered country in the gathering darkness with the steadily advancing footsteps of the insurgents : the return of the Islamist regime is now a matter of “how soon” rather than “if”.
There were claims in the afternoon that the President, Ashraf Ghani, has agreed to resign. There was no confirmation of that however, although, in a recorded speech he said negotiations will lead to a “peaceful transfer of power to the transitional government.” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said talks are underway to achieve this.
Any “transfer”, however, would mean an effective surrender of power to the Taliban and, with it, all that it is feared will be lost on human rights, equality for women, freedom of expression and the very democratic process of government.
Safety, however, was the most immediate concern for the people of Kabul. There were outbreaks of shooting, at first sporadic and then later slightly more sustained, on the streets. Small groups of armed men could be seen in some of the suburbs, especially on roads coming in from Logar province.
Further into the city motorcyclists, with keffiyehs around their faces, took photographs at checkpoints and government buildings, and also of the heavily fortified and supposedly secure ‘ green zone’ which has now been largely abandoned.
US helicopters flew overhead constantly. The aircraft, however, were not engaged in combat, but mainly carrying diplomats out of the American embassy to the airport for emergency evacuation.
The Chinooks hovering over the US embassy was not quite, perhaps, Afghanistan’s ‘ Saigon Moment’. The humiliating departure after defeat in Vietnam is not being fully replicated with a force of more than 4,600 American and British arriving at the airport. Joe Biden ordered the sending of a thousand more US troops to add to 3,000 already there. Britain has deployed a contingent of 600 led by the 16th Air Assault Brigade.
The Taliban offensive, with its devastating consequences, began after Mr Biden had withdrawn an American force of 2,300 from Afghanistan in great haste, forcing British and other Nato forces to leave as well. Afghans point out ruefully that the President was now prepared to deploy almost twice as many troops for the safety of a handful of Americans than he was to keep a country from the grasp of jhadists.
The city had been gripped by a state of panic in the last few days with the airport jammed with those seeking flights, a rush to buy food and other essentials from stocks in shops dwindling in supplies and rocketing in price. There has been a run on the banks who insist no more cash is available to be given out.
The office of the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, issued a statement in the morning, following the outbreaks of shooting, asking the people of Kabul not to be worried as “Afghan and international coalition forces” were in control of the situation.
The US and UK have repeatedly stressed that their forces would not get involved in the fighting, and it remained unclear why the President’s office felt that the two countries would want to stoke the dying embers of the civil war.
The insurgents have been careful not to attack American and other Western troops under the terms of the Doha Agreement, focusing their deadly attacks on the Afghan security forces. There have been repeated warnings of retribution from Washington if that changes.
The Taliban in a statement in the morning stated that it was undecided on whether to launch an assault on the capital.
A “separate decision will be taken later,” said Mujahid. However, he added “people should be assured that we don’t want a state of war in Kabul or, God forbid, anyone to be harmed”.
The group later issued a second statement promising that “no one’s life, property and dignity will be harmed and lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk”.
Afghans have, however, heard assurances of end to violence quite a lot recently only to have hopes of that dashed.
Waleed Mohammed Hamidullah, a 48 year old businessman, standing in frustration in front of a shut bank said : “We are very, very nervous about what is going to happen. There is nowhere we can go because, as you know, Kabul has been surrounded. I tried to draw some money out to buy airline tickets on the black market, but as you can see it is now shut. I’ll try again tomorrow, but I am not hopeful. We just want an end to the fighting.”
Afshaneh Ansari also wants an end to the violence. But the coming Taliban rule means that the life she had dreamed of and devoted so much to achieve would be gone.
“I wanted to be an artist trying to fusion Afghan and Western art. I am also an activist on gender issues”, said the student at Kabul University.
I don’t think that will be possible now, not in Afghanistan. I feel very sad for my country, I feel very sad for myself.
“I was thinking this morning, I am 20 years old, I was born the year the Taliban rule ended. The life I wanted so much and tried so hard for will end today, 20 years later.”