Kabul/Washington/Tokyo – The Taliban declared the war in Afghanistan was over after insurgents took control of the presidential palace in Kabul as U.S.-led forces departed and Western nations scrambled on Monday to evacuate their citizens.
President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered the city, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed, while hundreds of Afghans desperate to leave flooded Kabul Airport.
“Today is a great day for the Afghan people and the mujahedeen. They have witnessed the fruits of their efforts and their sacrifices for 20 years,” Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV.
“Thanks to God, the war is over in the country.”
It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the country after lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as Afghan forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.
Al Jazeera broadcast footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the presidential palace with dozens of armed fighters.
Naeem said the form of the new regime in Afghanistan would be made clear soon, adding the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and calling for peaceful international relations.
“We have reached what we were seeking, which is the freedom of our country and the independence of our people,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to use our lands to target anyone, and we do not want to harm others.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said early Monday that all embassy personnel, including Ambassador Ross Wilson, had been transferred to Kabul Airport to await evacuation and the American flag had been lowered and removed from the embassy compound.
U.S. troops fired shots into the air and all commercial flights were canceled as thousands of Afghans crowded onto the tarmac in the hope of catching any flight out after the weekend Taliban takeover.
Dramatic footage posted on social media showed a scene of chaos on the runway, with civilians frantically clambering up an already overcrowded and buckling set of stairs to an awaiting plane.
It was a desperate bid to board a parked passenger plane and escape the city a day after the government’s collapse.
As a crowd of hundreds watched on, those who successfully climbed the stairs helped others up, while some hung from the stair railings by their hands.
Panicked families trying to flee the capital carried overpacked luggage, with frightened children in tow.
“How can they hold the airport and dictate terms and conditions to Afghans?” said Rakhshanda Jilali, a human rights activist who was trying to get to Pakistan.
“This is our airport but we are seeing diplomats being evacuated while we wait in complete uncertainty,” Jilali, who said she had received multiple death threats, said via Whatsapp from the airport.
More than 60 western countries, including the United States, Japan, Britain and France, issued a joint statement saying all Afghans and international citizens who wanted to leave the country must be allowed to depart.
“The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity,” the statement said. “We in the international community stand ready to assist them.”
The Japanese government started work Monday to evacuate staff members at its embassy in Kabul, giving top priority to ensuring the safety of Japanese nationals in Afghanistan.
“The (evacuation) operation is ongoing,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters, noting that 12 staff members still remain at the embassy. Besides embassy staff, there are Japanese nationals working for international organizations in the capital, the official added.
“We have made arrangements for those who wish to evacuate,” another high-ranking ministry official said, suggesting that they would soon leave Afghanistan.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, authorized another 1,000 troops to help evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for them from Kabul as the U.S. government said it would assume air traffic control to facilitate the departure of thousands of Americans.
A joint statement from the State Department and Pentagon after Taliban insurgents entered the Afghan capital confirmed that the United States over the next 48 hours will “have expanded our security presence to nearly 6,000 troops, with a mission focused solely on facilitating these efforts and will be taking over air traffic control.”
The statement said it was working to secure the airport in Kabul “to enable the safe departure of U.S. and allied personnel from Afghanistan via civilian and military flights.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said late Sunday in a statement “the safe evacuation of all Embassy personnel is now complete. All Embassy personnel are located on the premises of Hamid Karzai International Airport, whose perimeter is secured by the U.S. military.”
The joint statement added the United States “will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens” and others, and added the government would “accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas.”
Aid group Emergency said 80 wounded people had been brought to its hospital in Kabul, which was at capacity, and that it was only admitting people with life-threatening injuries.
In a Facebook post, Ghani said he had left the country to avoid clashes with the Taliban that would endanger millions of residents of Kabul.
Some local social media users in Kabul branded Ghani, who did not disclose his location, a coward for leaving them in chaos. A tweet from the verified account of the Afghan Embassy in India said: “We are all banging our heads in shame.”
In Washington, opponents of President Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said the chaos was caused by a failure of leadership.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices in their imposition of Shariah, or Islamic religious law. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
“We are ready to have a dialogue with all Afghan figures and will guarantee them the necessary protection,” Naeem told Al Jazeera Mubasher TV.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Taliban and all other parties to exercise the utmost restraint, and expressed particular concern about the future of women and girls in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon authorized another 1,000 troops to help evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for them, a U.S. official said.
A senior U.S. defense official said Sunday evening in Washington that about 500 people, mostly Americans, had so far been evacuated, and that the number would rise to 5,000 a day when all planned U.S. forces are in Kabul.
European nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, also said they were working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out of the country.
Russia said it saw no need to evacuate its embassy for the time being. Turkey said its embassy would continue operations.
Asked if images of helicopters ferrying personnel were evocative of the United States’ departure from Vietnam in 1975, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News: “Let’s take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon.”
Biden has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan by Aug. 31.
In a statement on Sunday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blamed Biden for what he called a “shameful failure of American leadership.”
“Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low,” McConnell said.
Naeem said the Taliban would adopt a policy of non-interference in others’ affairs in return for non-interference in Afghanistan.
“We do not think that foreign forces will repeat their failed experience in Afghanistan once again.”
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