Taliban militants poured into the Afghan capital on Sunday night, facing virtually no armed resistance after Afghanistan's beleaguered president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country, bringing a chaotic end to the two-decade long US military project.
The Taliban fighters – who plan to establish an Islamic state ruled by a strict, literal interpretation of Islamic law on the Afghan population – moved to take control of Kabul, even as foreign governments were scrambling to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies.
A large group of Taliban fighters occupied the Afghan presidential palace. Tumultuous scenes were reported at Kabul airport, as panicked city residents sought flights out, and the US embassy warned of a deteriorating security situation. A Taliban spokesman urged people to stay calm. Television footage showed Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace.
The Taliban’s entry into Kabul is the culmination of a dramatic week-long lightning offensive in which the Islamist fighters seized control over most of the country – often with little armed resistance – in an astonishing reordering of Afghanistan’s political map.
"The Taliban has entered Kabul," Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, tweeted. "The Taliban took over the presidential palace, the police command and other installations. Kabul will effectively fall today."
The onslaught left the Ghani government politically and military isolated, and facing an imminent Taliban attack. The president – who had long resisted calls for his resignation to pave the way for peace talks with the militia – finally bowed out.
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's former president, confirmed Mr Ghani's departure, and said he was in talks with other Afghan leaders and the Taliban for a peaceful handover.
Taliban fighters were already taking over abandoned city police stations and posts.
The US is increasing its deployment to 5,000 troops to support the evacuation of diplomats, allied personnel and thousands of Afghans at high risk of retribution for working with the US.
US president Joe Biden said Washington had warned the Taliban that "any action . . . that puts US personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong military response".
Mr Biden said the US was working with Mr Ghani and other Afghan political leaders, as well as regional powers, “as they seek to prevent further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement”.
As the US evacuation got under way, embassy staff were instructed to burn sensitive documents, while Kabul residents thronged banks in a bid to withdraw their savings.
Though the Taliban's week-long onslaught has led to less bloodshed than the extent of their territorial gains might suggest, country specialists warn that Afghanistan, with its diverse mix of rival ethnic groups and fierce community rivalries, is heading towards a civil war.
"This is the end of Afghanistan as a nation," Sara Wahedi, a former Afghan government official who runs a security app for Kabul residents, wrote on Twitter. "No one will be able to lead the entire country."
Afghanistan's vice-president, Amrullah Saleh, who also left the country – and whom many predict will mount armed resistance – was defiant on Twitter after his departure. "I will never, ever & under no circumstances bow to d [sic] Talib terrorists," he wrote. "I won't disappoint millions who listened to me. I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER."
Many Afghans expressed fury at the US focus on evacuating its own citizens, leaving the local population at the mercy of the Taliban and its extremist ideology. Afghan women, in particular, fear hardship after the Taliban severely restricted their freedom of movement and ability to work when it ruled in the 1990s.
"I wish I could go to Kabul now and scream outside the US embassy, 'We are also human beings like you and we also have the right to live and enjoy freedom'," said a young woman in Herat, which fell to the Taliban a few days ago. She added that the Islamist fighters had already begun searching people's homes for alcohol or weapons.
“How could the Americans hand us over to the Taliban?” she said.
The rapid disintegration of the Afghan National Army stunned and dismayed many in Kabul and Washington who had expected the US-trained force to be able to put up stronger resistance to the Islamist insurgents.
The northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a traditional stronghold of fierce anti-Taliban resistance, fell to the insurgent group late on Saturday night after days of heavy fighting.
Political figures in the region fled, including anti-Taliban leaders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, who sought refuge in neighbouring Uzbekistan, according to local news reports.
Analysts said the abrupt pace of the US drawdown – including abandoning the main US military facility at Bagram air base virtually overnight – had severely damaged morale among the Afghan forces, undermining their will to fight.
"What we've underestimated is the level of Taliban planning with regard to the withdrawal," Rudra Chaudhuri, of King's College London, told the Financial Times. "They had a very clear plan. The question is, how did the entirety of the US intelligence community not know this?"
Analysts said some of Afghanistan’s most battle-hardened military leaders had tactically retreated to regroup and were likely to launch insurgencies.
“If anybody thinks it’s going to be a peaceful rule for Taliban or Afghanistan is going to be under their completely control and domination – no,” an Indian government official told the Financial Times. “There is always going to be this thorn in their backside.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021