(Bloomberg) -- Taliban leaders marched into Kabul Sunday, preparing to take full control of Afghanistan two decades after they were removed by the U.S. military.
The militant group took over the presidential palace, and said it plans to soon declare a new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Hours earlier, American-backed President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse shocked NATO allies and prompted condemnation from both sides of the U.S. political divide over how President Joe Biden’s administration appeared to be blindsided by the Taliban’s easy advance.
As the Al Jazeera network broadcast what it said were live images of armed Taliban fighters roaming the palace and posing at desks, Kabul’s airport became the staging ground for the planned exit of most U.S. embassy personnel, symbolizing the end of a two-decade engagement sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Taliban swept through Afghanistan in a matter of weeks, taking advantage of a vacuum left by departing U.S. and NATO forces working against Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to end America’s longest war. U.S. officials said they’re working for an orderly departure. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers in Washington that keeping a long-term presence in the country would have required a U.S. troop surge.
In many cases, the militants encountered little or no resistance from Afghan’s U.S.-trained military. Key provincial centers close to Kabul and in far-flung corners of the nation fell in quick succession.
Skies over Kabul buzzed on Sunday with U.S. military helicopters ferrying passengers from the U.S. embassy. The American flag at the embassy was lowered. Afghans lined up for cash and many headed to the airport, desperate to book a flight out of the country.
“We’re relocating the men and women of our embassy to a location at the airport,” Blinken said on ABC. “That’s why the president sent in a number of forces to make sure that, as we continue to draw down our diplomatic presence, we do it in a safe and orderly fashion.”
The acting U.S. ambassador was among those evacuated to the airport, the AP reported. The U.S. embassy said on its website that the airport was taking fire, and advised U.S. citizens to shelter in place. CNN reported earlier that the U.S. will pull out all embassy personnel by Tuesday, leaving a small core of staff to operate from the airport.
Top Biden administration officials briefed members of Congress, many of whom were furious about the visible chaos to end a campaign that’s cost the lives of about 2,400 American soldiers and close to $1 trillion.
“Given the number of American lives lost and the number of soldiers who came back with life-changing injuries, it’s devastating to watch 20 years of U.S. support for the Afghanistan army amount to almost nothing,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in an interview.
Many analysts agreed that a Taliban takeover was predictable once the U.S. left, Murphy said. “And that’s been true for a decade,” he said. “Unfortunately, it likely means we will need to have a dialogue with the Taliban.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the responsibility “rests squarely” on Biden’s shoulders.
“A proud superpower has been reduced to hoping the Taliban will not interfere with our efforts to flee Afghanistan,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement. “Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low.”
Biden has said he was hemmed in by a now-tattered peace accord negotiated with the group by the Trump administration, which made the popular decision to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.
Trump’s deal imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on U.S. forces and “left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday.
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.
The Taliban released a statement on Saturday denying reports that it had killed prisoners and forced villagers to hand over their daughters to marry Taliban soldiers. The group said it would respect public property, redeploy bureaucrats and military officers, and provide amnesty for anyone who “helped the invaders.”
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