Afghanistan’s beleaguered president vowed Saturday to prevent further bloodshed, as Taliban fighters closed in on Kabul after routing his armed forces over the past 10 days.
In a recorded address to the nation — his first since the Taliban launched their sweeping offensive — Ashraf Ghani said he wanted to stop the violence “as a historic mission”.
“I will not let the imposed war on people cause more deaths,” he said, appearing sombre and sitting before an Afghan flag.
The president gave no hint he would resign or take responsibility for the calamitous military collapse, but said the armed forces could be “remobilized” and consultations were taking place to try to help end the war.
He offered few specifics on what his administration was planning, with government control over Afghanistan all but collapsed, but the presidential palace later said in a statement that “a delegation with authority should soon be appointed by the government and be ready for negotiation”.
Further details were not immediately available.
Ghani’s speech came as a new wave of US personnel landed to oversee an evacuation of embassy employees and thousands of Afghans and their families, who fear retribution for working for the United States during its 20-year occupation.
Bill Urban, the spokesman for US Central Command, said soldiers “continue” to arrive, but did not say how many were on the ground so far, nor did he say if evacuations had begun. A total of 3,000 personnel were expected this weekend.
With the country’s main cities having fallen into Taliban hands apart from Kabul, the capital has effectively become the besieged last stand for government forces who have offered little or no resistance elsewhere.
As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, panicked residents formed long lines outside banks, hoping to withdraw their savings. Some branches appeared to have already run of cash.
– Heavy fighting –
Taliban fighters are now camped just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away from Kabul, with the United States and other countries scrambling to airlift their nationals out of the Afghan capital ahead of a feared all-out assault.
The Taliban on Saturday captured the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which held out for days as the terror group swept through most of the rest of the country, residents told AFP.
“They are parading on their vehicles and motorbikes, firing into the air in celebration,” said Atiqullah Ghayor, who lives near the city’s famed blue mosque.
Warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, who had led a militia resistance to support government forces, had fled to Uzbekistan, about 30 kilometres to the north, an aide said.
The only other cities of any significance not to be taken yet were Jalalabad, and Khost — Pashtun-dominated and unlikely to offer much resistance.
In Kabul, US embassy staff were ordered to begin shredding and burning sensitive material.
– ‘Crying night and day’ –
For Kabul residents and the tens of thousands who have sought refuge there in recent weeks, the overwhelming mood was one of apprehension and fear.
Muzhda, 35, a single woman who arrived in the capital with her two sisters after fleeing nearby Parwan, said she was terrified.
“I am crying day and night,” she told AFP
“I have turned down marriage proposals in the past… If the Taliban come and force me to marry, I will commit suicide.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply disturbed” by accounts of poor treatment of women in areas seized by the Taliban, who imposed an ultra-austere brand of Islam on Afghanistan during their 1996-2001 rule.
The scale and speed of the Taliban advance have shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country after toppling the insurgents in the wake of the September 11 attacks nearly 20 years ago.
Days before a final US withdrawal ordered by President Joe Biden, individual Afghan soldiers, units, and even whole divisions have surrendered — handing the Taliban even more vehicles and military hardware for their lightning advance.
– Accelerated offensive –
The Taliban offensive has accelerated in recent days, with the capture of Herat in the north and, just hours later, the seizure of Kandahar — the group’s spiritual heartland in the south.
Asadabad, the capital of Kunar in the east, and Gardez also fell on Saturday before Mazar-i-Sharif, as the Taliban tightened its grip.
After Ghani’s TV speech, Kabul-based analyst Sayed Naser Mosawi said it appeared the president was running out of options.
“The president’s message was not definitive enough to say he is willing to fight on to the end, but rather to me it sounds that he may be willing to give into some sort of settlement — if that doesn’t mean surrender,” he added.
On Saturday, helicopters flitted back and forth between Kabul’s airport and the vast US diplomatic compound in the heavily fortified Green Zone — 46 years after choppers evacuated Americans from Saigon, signalling the end of the Vietnam War.