The Taliban was poised to take control of Afghanistan on Sunday as fighters entered the outskirts of Kabul and said they were awaiting a “peaceful transfer” of the city after promising not to take the capital by force.
Meanwhile, Afghans and foreigners alike raced for the exit, signaling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.
The beleaguered central government, meanwhile, hoped for an interim administration but increasingly had few cards to play. Civilians fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings.
In a statement, the Taliban welcomed their “victory” and said they were not going to attack the Afghan capital, according to a BBC reporter.
Taliban negotiators headed to the presidential palace to discuss the transfer, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. It remained unclear exactly when the transfer would take place.
Afghan Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal said there would be a “peaceful transfer of power” to a transitional government, after the Taliban ordered its fighters to hold back from entering Kabul.
“The Afghan people should not worry… There will be no attack on the city and there will be a peaceful transfer of power to the transitional government,” he said in a recorded speech.
However, panicked residents raced to leave Kabul, with workers fleeing government offices and helicopters landing at the US Embassy. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal said that employees at the American University were burning documents containing identifying information about students in order to protect them.
The Taliban has insisted their fighters wouldn’t enter homes or interfere with businesses.
They also said they’d offer “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
“The Islamic Emirate once again assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honor and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” the militants said. “In this regard, no one should worry about their life.”
Despite the pledge, those who can afford a ticket have been flocking to Kabul International Airport, the only way out of the country after the Taliban took the last border crossing still held by the government at Torkham on Sunday.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told local broadcaster Geo TV that Pakistan halted cross-border traffic there after the militants seized it.
In an astonishing nationwide offensive that has taken just over a week, the Taliban has defeated, coopted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swaths of the country, even though they had some air support from the US military.
The lightning speed of the push has shocked many and raised questions about why Afghan forces crumbled despite years of US training and billions of dollars spent. Just days ago, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
Acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan sought to reassure the public in a video message.
“Authority has been given to a delegation that will be going to Doha (Qatar) tomorrow to reach an agreement on Afghanistan,” he said. “I assure you about the security of Kabul.”
Jalalabad, Afghanistan’s last major city besides the capital not held by the militants, fell to the Taliban earlier Sunday. Militants posted photos online showing them in the governor’s office in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. Rapid shuttle flights of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters near the US embassy began a few hours after the militants seized the nearby city of Jalalabad.
Diplomatic armored SUVs could be seen leaving the area around the post. The US State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the movements.
Wisps of smoke could be seen near the embassy’s roof as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, according to two American military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.
The smoke grew heavier over time in the area, home to other nation’s embassies as well.
Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, which typically carry armed troops, later landed near the embassy as well.
At least one attack helicopter could be seen overhead as helicopters launched flares to distract possible missile fire. The US decided a few days ago to send in thousands of troops to help evacuate some personnel from its embassy.
At Kabul International Airport, Afghan forces abandoned the field to Western militaries, said a pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security matters. An Afghan flight earlier landed at the airport from Kandahar loaded with troops who surrendered to the Taliban, even after taking shrapnel damage from a mortar attack, the pilot said.
Later, Afghan forces at Bagram air base, home to a prison housing 5,000 inmates, surrendered to the Taliban, according to Bagram district chief Darwaish Raufi. The prison on the base, formerly the largest US military site in the country, housed both Taliban and Islamic State group fighters.
Thousands of civilians now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul itself, fearing a Taliban government that could reimpose a brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights. Some ATMs stopped distributing cash as hundreds gathered in front of private banks, trying to withdraw their life savings.
Gunfire erupted at several points, though the Afghan presidency sought to downplayed the shooting.
“The defense and security forces along with the international forces working for the security of Kabul city and the situation is under control,” the presidency said amid the chaos.
Abrarullah Murad, a lawmaker from the province, told The Associated Press that the insurgents seized Jalalabad after elders negotiated the fall of the government there. Murad said there was no fighting as the city surrendered.
The militants took also Maidan Shar, the capital of Maidan Wardak, on Sunday, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) from Kabul, Afghan lawmaker Hamida Akbari and the Taliban said. Another provincial capital in Khost also fell to the Taliban, said a provincial council member who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The fall Saturday of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, handed the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan.