Afghanistan: Government resistance crumbles as Taliban isolate capital Kabul

Fall of city east of Kabul on Sunday came hours after militants consolidated their grip on the north by seizing Mazar-i-Sharif

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks about the Taliban threat

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks about the Taliban threat
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Taliban insurgents isolated Afghanistan's capital on Sunday with the capture of the eastern city of Jalalabad, leaving President Ashraf Ghani's government with few options after the country's armed forces were routed in the space of 10 days.

In a special meeting at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Saturday, Mr Ghani announced the formation of a negotiating team aimed at unifying the government against the Taliban advance.

But it did not take long for fissures to emerge within the negotiating team, with a senior security source in Kabul telling The National that Mr Ghani was "under a lot of pressure" and that the US and other international leaders were urging him to resign.

Mr Ghani's hopes of resisting the insurgents all but crumbled after they captured the northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif later on Saturday and Jalalabad on Sunday.

Unconfirmed reports from Paghman, a city in Kabul province to the west of the capital, said Taliban fighters had been seen in the area on Sunday.

The Taliban advance comes amid the withdrawal of US and Nato troops from Afghanistan almost 20 years after a US-led invasion toppled the insurgents' regime.

A Taliban offensive was launched in May and rapidly picked up momentum with their first capture of a provincial capital on August 6.

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden stood by his decision to swiftly end the US military presence in Afghanistan.

"I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan – two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war on to a fifth," Mr Biden said.

Chinook helicopters were seen flying to and from the US embassy on Sunday after thousands of troops were sent to Kabul at the weekend as US citizens and staff left Kabul.

On Saturday, Mr Biden ordered that another 1,000 soldiers be sent to support 1,000 troops already in the country, and the 3,000 sent a few days ago.

"I have authorised the deployment of approximately 5,000 US troops" to oversee both the removal of citizens and the final withdrawal of US forces, he said after meeting with his national security team.

Other western countries, including the UK and Germany, are also flying their diplomats and citizens out of the country.

Mr Ghani made a short televised address on Saturday after the Taliban arrived at the doorstep of the capital with the capture Pul-i-Alam, capital of Logar province about 60 kilometres south of Kabul, and intensified their assault on Mazar-i-Sharif.

Mr Ghani said he was on a “historic mission” to stop the violence.

“I will not let the imposed war on people cause more deaths,” he said.

A key priority was to remobilise forces loyal to the government, he said.

The address was followed by meetings with officials including national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, former minister of interior Mohammed Hanif Atmar, director of the Office of the President, Fazel Fazly, and former president Hamid Karzai.

Several former Afghan mujahideen commanders, known for resisting Soviet forces in the 1980s, as well as other key Afghan politicians, joined the discussions.

Another security meeting with Mr Ghani was attended by US ambassador Ross Wilson. Sources from inside the presidential palace told The National that many meetings were under way to discuss the next steps.

But no concrete plans had been formulated yet. The sources said the situation in the palace was "very chaotic".

Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Mr Ghani’s political efforts may have already been outpaced by military developments.

“The team members won’t matter as much as this fact will: the Taliban are in a position to set all the terms. And even if they offer terms that everyone in the political elite can accept, it isn’t certain the Taliban would abide by what they might agree to,” Mr Watkins said.

Officials have also said Abdullah Abudullah, who led a unity government until May last year, held similar meetings with political leaders.

Issues such as a ceasefire and an interim government were discussed, sources said.

Meanwhile, Sami Sadat, one of the army's youngest generals, was appointed as chief of Kabul Security on Saturday.

Gen Sadat, 36, commands the army's 215th Corps and formerly led Special Forces units, regarded as the government's most capable fighters. He will be hard-pressed to stem the Taliban's seemingly inexorable march on Kabul.

Early on Sunday, there were unconfirmed reports of heavy gunfire and fighting in Kabul, while Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh said a riot in the capital's Poli Charkhi prison had been quelled.

Watch: people flee as the Taliban advance

People flee Afghanistan as the Taliban advances

People flee Afghanistan as the Taliban advances

Afghanistan threatened with economic collapse

As the Taliban advance continued, Afghans with the means to leave areas under threat rushed to banks to withdraw savings.

The Afghan currency lost more than 15 per cent of its value overnight, falling to 94 Afghani to the dollar from 80 on Friday, and banks were crowded with people trying to make withdrawals in US currency.

An official at a branch of a private bank said it received about 1,500 customers, compared with about 100 on peak days previously. Most of the customers wanted to withdraw their funds.

The demand led the head office to order a withdrawal limit of $5,000 for every customer, the official said. Airports across the country were crowded with people trying to leave.

Commercial flights continued to operate but there were no economy seats available and in Kabul business-class tickets were being sold for more than $2,000.

Some people at the airport told The National they hoped to find space on some of the special evacuation flights operated by western countries.

Updated: August 15, 2021, 10:15 AM