KABUL — Afghanistan’s president fled the country on Sunday as Taliban fighters in Kabul and the group reached the brink of taking political power. Twenty years after toppling the militant regime, the United States rushed to exit the country after the loss of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars failed to bring lasting democracy to the nation.
President Ashraf Ghani’s departure — and the hurried evacuation of all personnel from the American embassy — followed a lightning-fast Taliban offensive across the country that brought an embarrassing end to the U.S. military presence after two decades.
Later, video put out by Al Jazeera appeared to show extraordinary images of armed Taliban fighters inside the Afghan presidential palace, lounging in chairs, strolling around with their guns and taking pictures of each other. The fighters give a tour to the Al Jazeera journalist, and at one point one rolls up an Afghan flag in the palace and puts it on a mantle piece.
U.S. officials had clearly not anticipated a possible fall of Kabul this quickly after President Joe Biden announced the full withdrawal of U.S. forces, and were scrambling both to protect their staff and to explain the defeat politically.
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, confirmed earlier reports that Ghani had left Afghanistan.
“He left Afghanistan in a hard time, God hold him accountable,” Abdullah, a longtime rival of Ghani’s, said in an online video.
Ghani’s team confirmed the departure to CNBC. In a statement posted to his official Facebook page, Ghani said he left Afghanistan in order to avoid bloodshed, but did not specify his location or destination.
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As Afghans from the presidential palace to the frenzied streets fled the militant group’s rapid advance, the Taliban prepared to take full control of the country once more.
The Taliban ordered their fighters to enter Kabul because they believed police had deserted all their positions, a Taliban spokesman told NBC News, which could not confirm these claims.
The spokesman urged residents of the capital to remain calm.
Earlier, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said fighters would “be on standby on all entrances of Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power is agreed.” In a separate statement to NBC News, a Taliban spokesman said that those entering Kabul were unarmed on instructions from senior commanders.
U.S. forces were evacuating all staff from the city’s American embassy via Kabul’s airport after Biden authorized the deployment of 5,000 troops to the country.
The embassy will close once all personnel are transferred out, a person familiar with the situation told NBC News, and there have been intense negotiations with the Taliban for safe passage.
The embassy issued a security alert later Sunday that they were instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place as there were reports of the airport “taking fire.”
The evacuation comes at the end of a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal launched in April, and only weeks before the last remaining American forces were due to depart under an Aug. 31 deadline set by Biden.
The president has remained steadfast in spite of the Taliban blitz. A White House official said on Sunday that Biden had spoken to members of his national security team “on the situation in Afghanistan” and would continue to receive updates throughout the day.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that the president was focused “first and foremost” on the safety and security of U.S. personnel. He said the U.S. would maintain a core diplomatic presence, and in effect an embassy, at a location at Kabul’s airport.
“We’ve been very clear with the Taliban that any effort on their part to interrupt our operations, to attack our forces, to attack our personnel, would be met with a very strong, decisive response,” he said.
Blinken said the “inability” of the Afghan security forces to defend their country played a “very powerful role” in the rapid Taliban takeover of parts of the country. But he said that in terms of the threat posed to the United States before 9/11, he thought America was in a “much better” place.
In a nationwide offensive that has taken just over a week, the militants encircled the Afghan capital as the group surprised Washington, Kabul and even its own fighters with the speed of the campaign.
The Taliban advance and ensuing collapse of the Afghan government has sent large numbers of civilians fleeing their homes, seeking refuge both from the fighting and the prospect of the Islamist regime that ruled the country before 2001 being reimposed.
In Kabul, thousands of people were living in parks and open spaces.
Hundreds of people also gathered in front of private banks, trying to withdraw their life savings, while some ATMs stopped distributing money.
On Sunday, Afghan forces at Bagram air base, once a bustling mini-city that saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through its gates, also surrendered to the Taliban, two U.S. defense officials told NBC News.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not officially authorized to comment, the defense officials added that the militant group had started to release prisoners from the Parwan Detention Facility, some of whom were hardened Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
The insurgents also captured the eastern city of Jalalabad, giving them control of one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan. They took over the nearby Torkham border post with Pakistan, too, leaving Kabul airport the only way out of Afghanistan that is still in government hands.
These advances came after Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city, fell on Saturday to give the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan.
Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul; Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, Pakistan; Rhea Mogul reported from Hong Kong; and Andrea Mitchell and Courtney Kube reported from Washington.
Ahmed Mengli is a journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Mushtaq Yusufzai is a journalist based in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Andrea Mitchell is chief Washington correspondent and chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News.