KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban forces fanned out across Kabul on Sunday night as an official with the militant group said it would soon announce the creation of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” from the presidential palace in the capital.
That was the name of the country under Taliban rule before the militants were ousted by US-led forces after the 9/11 attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The Al-Jazeera news network later aired footage showing a group of Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace.
The city was gripped by panic, with helicopters racing overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the US embassy. Smoke rose near the compound, as staff destroyed important documents, and the American flag was lowered. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting about Afghanistan on Monday morning, at the request of Estonia and Norway.
Council diplomats said Sunday that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will brief council members on the latest situation following the Taliban takeover of the capital, Kabul.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) August 15, 2021
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country earlier Sunday, said he left in order to “prevent a flood of bloodshed,” as the Taliban entered the capital, capping a lightning offensive across the country.
Ghani, who did not say where he had gone, said he believed “countless patriots would be martyred and the city of Kabul would be destroyed” if he had stayed behind.
“The Taliban have won… and are now responsible for the honor, property and self-preservation of their countrymen,” Ghani wrote in a statement posted to Facebook.
Though the Taliban had promised a peaceful transition, the US embassy suspended operations and warned Americans late in the day to shelter in place and not try to get to the airport.
Commercial flights were suspended after sporadic gunfire erupted at the airport, according to two senior US military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. Evacuations continued on military flights, but the halt to commercial traffic closed off one of the last routes available for Afghans fleeing the country.
“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” said Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council. “God should hold him accountable.”
As night fell, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition. Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the upscale diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.
In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the US and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces. Just days earlier, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
Germany will begin flying its embassy staff out of Kabul later Sunday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, adding that the employees were currently all safe at the military section of the airport.
The Bundeswehr’s aircraft will also depart Sunday night for the Afghan capital to help with the evacuation in coming days, Maas added, as the Taliban closed in on power.
The army will fly passengers to an unnamed “neighboring country,” where they will then be put on civilian flights bound for Germany, said the minister.
A core team of the embassy will carry on operating from the airport, where they are currently sheltering, to help in particular with the evacuations.
“We are doing everything now to enable our nationals and our former local employees to leave the country in the coming days,” said Maas.
However, he warned that the situation is “difficult to predict,” and that Germany was working in close cooperation with allies on the evacuations.
Canada temporarily closed its embassy in Kabul after evacuating staff, the Foreign Ministry in Ottawa announced Sunday. The ministry said in a statement that Canadian personnel were already on their way back to Canada.
“Canada firmly condemns the escalating violence, and we are heartbroken at the situation the Afghan people find themselves in today,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
The ministry added that the embassy would reopen once conditions allowed a resumption of normal activities under adequate security.