American diplomats burned documents and the U.S. military rushed to evacuate personnel from Kabul on Sunday morning as Taliban fighters entered the Afghan capital and pushed for the unconditional surrender of the Afghan government, capping a stunning insurgent offensive coinciding with the American military withdrawal after two decades of war.
Taliban and Afghan officials are in talks about a peaceful transfer of power to a new transitional government, according to media reports, with the U.S.-backed government seemingly hoping to avoid bloody fighting on the streets of Kabul as Taliban fighters surround the city from all sides.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the country Sunday morning as Taliban and government representatives met at the city’s presidential palace for formal talks. A Taliban official said the group will soon declare the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the presidential palace in Kabul.
The Associated Press reported that the U.S Embassy in Kabul had suspended all operations on Sunday and told Americans to shelter in place, saying it had received reports of gunfire at the international airport in the Afghan capital.
That development came after Secretary of State Antony Blinken had appeared on American news talk shows on Sunday morning rejecting comparisons to the U.S. pullout from Vietnam, as many watched in disbelief at the sight of helicopters landing in the embassy compound to take diplomats to a new outpost at Kabul International Airport.
“This is manifestly not Saigon,” Mr. Blinken said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Virtually no one predicted the Taliban would reach Kabul so quickly. Just last week, U.S. intelligence officials estimated that Kabul could fall within several months. But it has taken only a matter of days for the group’s forces to reach the capital after capturing other key cities around the country amid the near-total collapse of Afghan security forces, which are far better equipped and better organized than the Taliban insurgents.
As President Biden and former President Trump blame each other for the chaos in Afghanistan, the U.S. is rushing to evacuate diplomats and other personnel.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that smoke could be seen near the roof of the American embassy in Kabul, suggesting that diplomats inside were burning sensitive material before Taliban fighters could overrun the building.
U.S. military helicopters also have been seen in the area as the administration rushes to pull out most of its personnel from the capital.
Mr. Biden over the weekend authorized the deployment of another 1,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to aid with that evacuation.
A total of 5,000 troops are now either already in the country or arriving soon to help evacuate American diplomats and Afghan allies who worked as interpreters alongside the U.S. over the past two decades, the Pentagon said in a statement.
But the U.S. withdrawal — which Mr. Trump first negotiated with the Taliban and Mr. Biden carried out despite growing warning signs — could become more difficult with insurgent fighters inside the city.
Taliban officials say they have instructed their fighters to allow for safe passage out of Kabul, but the group also says the Afghan government is responsible for the city’s security.
“Until the completion of the transition process, the responsibility for the security of Kabul is with the other side,” said a Taliban spokesperson, according to Al-Jazeera.
Back in the U.S., angry lawmakers are blaming both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump for insisting on a full military withdrawal despite evidence that the Taliban would seek to overthrow the Afghan government and that the group maintains ties with al Qaeda.
“When it comes to assigning blame regarding the debacle in Afghanistan: After speaking with various U.S. military leaders, one thing I am certain of is the military has consistently given sound advice to both Presidents Biden and Trump,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a Twitter post late Saturday.
“Our military leaders can only advise. It is up to the political leadership — the Commander-in-Chief and his team — to act. The decision to withdraw completely from Afghanistan was made AGAINST sound military advice.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.