Kabul, Aug 15: Afghanistan's embattled president left the country Sunday, joining his fellow citizens and foreigners in a stampede fleeing the advancing Taliban and signalling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.
The Taliban, which for hours had been in the outskirts of Kabul, announced soon after they would move further into a city gripped by panic throughout the day as helicopters raced overhead to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
Civilians fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women's rights rushed to leave the country as well, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings. The desperately poor who had left homes in the countryside for the hoped-for safety in the capital remained in their thousands in parks and open spaces throughout the city.
President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country, two officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief journalists. Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, later confirmed in an online video that Ghani had left.
The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation," Abdullah said. "God should hold him accountable.
In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. 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.
Instead, the Taliban swiftly defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swaths of the country, even though they had some air support from the U.S. military.
On Sunday, the insurgents entered the outskirts of Kabul but apparently remained outside of the city's downtown. Sporadic gunfire echoed at times though the streets were largely quiet.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Qatar's Al-Jazeera English satellite news channel that the insurgents are awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul city. He declined to offer specifics on any possible negotiations between his forces and the government.
But when pressed on what kind of agreement the Taliban wanted, Shaheen acknowledged that they were seeking an unconditional surrender by the central government.