Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is reported to have fled his country on August 15 with helicopters full of cash, abandoning thousands of regular citizens that are thronging the airport. Some became so desperate to leave the country as it returned to Taliban control that they tried to stow themselves away in the undercarriages of departing planes. At least two people who attempted this reportedly fell to their deaths shortly after take-off.
Ghani escaped the capital only hours after the Taliban appeared outside Kabul, taking a plane to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. However, his whereabouts are now unknown, although the plane flew on to the Uzbek capital Tashkent, according to some reports.
"As for the collapse of the [outgoing] regime, it is most eloquently characterised by the way Ghani fled Afghanistan," Nikita Ishchenko, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Kabul was quoted as saying by state news agency RIA. Russia has one of the few embassies still operating in Kabul after receiving assurances from the Taliban that its employees would not be harmed. China’s embassy is also still open, while most of the rest of the diplomatic corps is at Kabul’s international airport, Hamid Karzai, awaiting evacuation.
"Four cars were full of money, they [Ghani’s staff] tried to stuff another part of the money into a helicopter, but not all of it fit. And some of the money was left lying on the tarmac," Ishchenko was cited as saying, referring to “witnesses” in reports that have not been independently verified. Ischenko repeated his comments to Reuters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said earlier that it was unclear how much money the fleeing government would leave behind.
"I hope the government that has fled did not take all the money from the state budget. It will be the bedrock of the budget if something is left," Kabulov told Moscow's Ekho Moskvy radio station.
There was more chaos at the airport. Some of the US military contingent there of approximately 2,500 soliders were caught up in an exchange of gunfire and two men were killed. They were later reported to be members of the Taliban. Video circulating on social media showed two bodies on the ground inside the airport’s perimeter.
US forces claimed that they only fired into the air in an attempt to turn back crowds trying to enter airport territory, now the only part of Kabul not under Taliban control. The two killed Taliban were also variously reported to be part of a force outside the airport perimeter also engaged in crowd control.
In all seven people were reportedly killed on August 16 at the airport, although information remains sketchy and unverifiable in the chaos that reigns at present. US officials did confirm that some of the casualties were civilians who attempted to cling to planes as they took off.
Inside the airport perimeter, hundreds, or thousands according to some reports, of refugees are camping out in the hope of boarding the planes being sent to evacuate Nato member country personnel.
Video widely shared on social media showed civilians on the runway, running alongside a US C-17 transport plane that was taxiing before take-off. At least a dozen people climbed on to the plane’s superstructure as it gathered speed, although it was not clear if they remained there as the plane lifted from the runway.
Other video footage showed a plane shortly after take-off. A person appears to fall from it to the ground. According to various reports at least two Afghans tried to stowaway in the wheel housing of the C-17.
The evacuation of people including foreign nationals and Afghans who worked for Nato member states continues and so far it appears that the Taliban have consented to its progress. Bagram airport, that served as the headquarters for the US military effort in Afghanistan and is an hour’s drive from the capital, fell under Taliban control on August 15.
US forces were working with Turkish and other international troops to clear Kabul airport to allow international evacuation flights to resume, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Germany was working on getting as many people as possible out of Afghanistan quickly, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, adding that Nato allies misjudged the situation when they concluded that Afghan government forces could hold back the Taliban.
“We want to get as many people out of the country as quickly as possible,” Maas told reporters.
He said people who had worked with German military forces in the country, human rights activists and Afghan-German dual nationals would make up the bulk of some 10,000 people Germany wants to move out of Afghanistan.
The US military said late on August 15 that it was sending another battalion of about 1,000 troops to help safeguard Kabul airport and reinforce the soldiers already stationed there. The head of the US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, told Taliban officials in Doha on the night of August 15 “not to attack the Kabul airport,” a US defence official said, according to Al Jazeera, though it did not give more details of the reported conversation.
Government soldiers flee to Uzbekistan
The remaining government soldiers are on the run or have gone into hiding. Hundreds fled to Uzbekistan with 22 military planes and 24 helicopters on August 16. One plane collided with an escorting Uzbek fighter jet, causing both to crash, Uzbekistan was cited as saying by Aljazeera.
The Uzbek defence ministry earlier said that an Afghan military jet was shot down and crashed after it crossed the border.
A total of 585 Afghan soldiers arrived in aircraft and 158 more crossed the border on foot on August 15, the Uzbek prosecutor general’s office said in a statement issued on August 16.
Kabul on lockdown with no government
The Taliban have locked down the capital and set up roadblocks throughout the city. They are checking documents and have confiscated weapons from government officials, police and other members of the former administration.
Roadblocks have also been set up on the road between Kabul and Jalalabad in Pakistan, the closest major city over the Afghanistan border. Taliban militia on the border were checking documents of those passing in and out of the country and asking those without beards if they were Muslims.
Publicly the Taliban are still saying they want a peaceful transition of power and that there will be no revenge killings or retribution against those who cooperated with the Nato allied forces during the two-decade long occupation.
With the Taliban now physically and militarily in control of the country, work on forming a government has just begun. The insurgents have already secured control of the main levers of power, including the national broadcaster, but there is still a lot of work ahead to set up a functioning government.
EU and UN reaction
Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) party chief Armin Laschet, a candidate for chancellor in September’s German general election, called the US pullout the “biggest Nato debacle” since the military alliance was set up.
"It is the biggest debacle that Nato has suffered since its founding, and we're standing before an epochal change,” Laschet said. "But we will talk about the causes and conclusions drawn after this rescue mission—a no holds barred analysis of errors in Germany, with our allies and in the international community," he added.
Despite harshly condemning the US pullout, Laschet went on to make it clear that with fleeing Afghans he would not repeat German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of opening the doors to refugees, a move she made for a million Syrian refugees in 2015, causing big divisions among Germans that have not gone away.
The UN held an emergency session in New York on the day after the Afghan capital’s fall to the Taliban, where world leaders called for peace and restraint.
One question that remains open is whether the Taliban will be eligible to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) $650bn Special Drawing Rights handout that is due to be implemented on August 23. The handout is designed by the Fund to help countries, particularly poorer countries, overcome negative effects of the coronacrisis more quickly. In theory only the legitimate governments of IMF member countries are eligible and the status of the Taliban government, which has yet to be settled, will be a topic of debate.
The UN has maintained an extensive aid operation in Afghanistan since the early days of the American-led occupation that began two decades ago after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres implored the Taliban to uphold human rights and especially those of girls and women.
Guterres also appealed for the UN Security Council, of which both Russia and China are members, to stand as one, and to ensure that human rights are upheld, humanitarian aid continues and that Afghanistan does not again become a platform for terrorism.
“The following days will be pivotal,” said the UN chief. “The world is watching. We cannot and must not abandon the people of Afghanistan… At this grave hour, I urge all parties, especially the Taliban, to exercise utmost restraint to protect lives and to ensure that humanitarian needs can be met.”
Fear gripping Kabul
Afghanistan’s UN ambassador, Ghulam Isaczai, spoke of the fear that has gripped Kabul; people displaced from other provinces have flocked to the capital, viewed as the last refuge in the country.
“Kabul residents are reporting that Taliban have already started house to house searches in some neighbourhoods in Kabul, registering names and looking for people on their target list,” said Isaczai, as cited by the UN’s news service. “There are already reports of target killings and looting in the city.”
As roughly half of all Afghans, or some 18 million people, depend on humanitarian aid, it is essential to continue providing basic services, Guterres said.
“In a statement issued yesterday, the Taliban said that they would work with existing institutions,” Guterres told the UN ambassadors. “It is crucial that civil servant salaries continue to be paid, infrastructure is maintained, airports are reopened, and health and education services continue.”
Separately, Pakistan, which has close ties to the Taliban, said it is committed to “an inclusive political settlement” in Afghanistan. Such a settlement was “the way forward representing all Afghan ethnic groups,” according to a statement issued by the prime minister’s office. The statement called upon all parties in Afghanistan to respect the rule of law, protect the fundamental human rights of all Afghans, and ensure that Afghan soil is not used by any terrorist organisation, the statement said.
Russia, which also has maintained communications with the Taliban leadership throughout the crisis, said that it was in “no rush” to recognise a Taliban government and is taking a wait-and-see approach.
China, which is also being careful to build ties with the Taliban and hosted a senior member of the group in China’s northwestern provinces in July for talks, has said very little so far.
The spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Twitter that “China respects the will and choice of the Afghan people. China has noted that the Afghan Taliban said [on August 16] that the war in Afghanistan is over and they will hold talks aimed at forming an open, inclusive Islamic government in Afghanistan and take responsible actions to protect the safety of Afghan citizens and foreign missions.
“China hopes to see these remarks implemented so as to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan, keep at bay terrorism and criminal acts and make sure that the Afghan people stay away from war and rebuild their homeland.”
Beijing’s overriding goal is to contain the instability in the country and prevent the spread of radical Islamic fundamentalists across the border into its own fractious regions over the border.
Russia and the neighbouring Central Asian states are also afraid of instability spreading to their territory from Afghanistan and are keen to head off any potential refugee crisis.