KABUL: After a glorious end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war, victorious Taliban fighters patrolled Kabul on Monday, as thousands of people tried to flee the country at the city’s airport.
President Ashraf Ghani left the country on Sunday night when rebels besieged the capital, limiting military victory and capturing all cities in just 10 days.
“The Taliban have won with their swords and guns, and now they are responsible for the honor, property and self-protection of their compatriots,” Ghani later said.
Government forces collapsed without the support of the US military, which attacked after the September 11, 2001 attacks and overthrew the Taliban in support of al-Qaeda.
But the United States ultimately failed to build a democratic government capable of tolerating the Taliban, despite spending billions of dollars and providing two decades of military assistance.
After police and other government forces abandoned their posts in Kabul on Sunday, Taliban fighters seized checkpoints across the city and entered the presidential palace.
Fighters with rifles slung over their shoulders also passed through the streets of the Green Zone, formerly a heavily fortified district, home to most embassies and international organizations.
The Taliban sought to reassure the international community that Afghans should not be intimidated, and said they would not take revenge on those who supported the US-backed coalition.
In a message posted on social media, Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar urged his fighters to remain disciplined after taking control of the city.
“Now is the time to test and prove. Now we have to show that we can serve our nation and ensure the safety and security of life,” he said.
The Taliban had seized the capital, as in many other cities, without the bloodshed that many feared.
– ‘We are afraid’ –
But there were disappointing scenes at Kabul airport on Monday as people tried to board a few available flights.
“We are afraid to live in this city,” a 25-year-old veteran told AFP.
“Since I was serving in the army, the Taliban will definitely target me.”
The United States has sent 6,000 troops to the airport to ensure the safe evacuation of embassy staff, as well as Afghans who served as spokespersons or in other supporting roles.
Other governments, including France, Germany and Australia, also arranged for charter flights.
The U.S. government said Monday it had secured the airport, but there was still confusion over reports of soldiers firing into the air to avoid clashes with witnesses.
Authorities then canceled all other commercial flights, citing the threat of looters.
Earlier, the United States issued a statement with more than 65 countries urging the Taliban to allow Afghans to leave the country, warning of accountability for any abuse.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Taliban and all parties to show restraint and said the rights of women and girls must be protected.
The Taliban enforced a very strict interpretation of Sharia law during their 1996-2001 period.
This included banning school girls and women from working, while people were publicly stoned for adultery.
The people of Kabul feel “frightened and helpless,” said Muska Dastiger, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, which opened five years after the Taliban were ousted.
“Fear just sits inside your chest like a black bird. It spreads its wings and you can’t breathe,” he wrote on Twitter.
China ready to work
The UN Security Council was due to convene an emergency meeting on Afghanistan on Monday to seek formal recognition of the Taliban.
China was the first major country to raise a flag of support for the Taliban and said it was ready for “friendly relations”.
Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who plans to meet with the Taliban on Tuesday, will acknowledge how they will govern in the near future, a Foreign Ministry official in Moscow said.
The US government has in recent days insisted that its two-decade war in Afghanistan was a success, defined by the elimination of the al-Qaeda threat.
President Joe Biden has said he has no choice but to withdraw US troops and will not hand over the war to another president.
But the rapid fall of the Afghan government has taken Washington by surprise, and critics say the United States’ reputation as a world power has been severely damaged.