The Afghan Taliban tightened their territorial grip around Kabul on Saturday, as refugees from the relentless insurgent offensive flooded the capital and US Marines returned to oversee emergency evacuations.
With the country’s second and third largest cities falling to the Taliban, Kabul effectively became the last besieged position for government forces who offered little or no resistance elsewhere.
Insurgent fighters are now encamped just 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, leaving the United States and other countries scrambling to transport their nationals out of Kabul before a feared assault.
U.S. Embassy staff have been ordered to begin shredding and burning sensitive material, as units from a planned redeployment of 3,000 U.S. troops began arriving to secure the airport and oversee evacuations .
A host of European countries, including Britain, Germany, Denmark and Spain, all announced on Friday the withdrawal of staff from their respective embassies.
For the people of Kabul and the tens of thousands of people who have taken refuge there in recent weeks, the mood was one of confusion and fear of what lies ahead.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” resident Khairddin Logari told AFP.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply troubled” by accounts of ill-treatment inflicted on women in areas seized by the Taliban, who imposed ultra-austere Islam on Afghanistan during their period. reign from 1996-2001.
“It is particularly horrific and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women,” Guterres said.
The scale and speed of the Taliban’s advance shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country after toppling the Taliban in the 9/11 attacks ago almost 20 years.
Days before a final US withdrawal ordered by President Joe Biden, individual soldiers, units and even entire divisions surrendered, offering the insurgents even more vehicles and military equipment to fuel their lightning advance.
– “No imminent threat” –
Despite frenzied evacuation efforts, the Biden administration continues to insist that a complete Taliban takeover is not inevitable.
“Kabul is not currently in an environment of imminent threat,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Friday, while acknowledging that Taliban fighters “were trying to isolate” the city.
The Taliban offensive has gathered pace in recent days, with the capture of Herat in the north and, hours later, the capture of Kandahar, the group’s spiritual heart in the south.
Abdul Nafi, a resident of Kandahar, told AFP that the city was calm after government forces abandoned it for the sanctuary of military installations outside, where they were negotiating the terms of surrender.
“I went out this morning, I saw white Taliban flags in most of the city squares,” he said. “I thought it might be the first day of Eid. “
Pro-Taliban social media accounts have bragged about the vast spoils of war captured by insurgents – posting photos of armored vehicles, heavy weapons and even a drone seized by their fighters from abandoned military bases.
In Herat, the Taliban captured longtime strongman Ismail Khan, who helped lead the defense of the provincial capital with his militia fighters.
Pul-e-Alam, capital of Loghar province, was the last city to fall on Friday, putting the Taliban within striking distance of Kabul.
Helicopters circled back and forth between Kabul airport and the sprawling U.S. diplomatic complex in the heavily fortified Green Zone – 46 years after helicopters evacuated Americans from Saigon, marking the end of the Vietnam War.
The U.S.-led evacuation focuses on thousands of people, including embassy workers, Afghans and their families who fear reprisals for working as interpreters or in other support roles for the United States.
Pentagon spokesman Kirby said most of the evacuation troops would be in place on Sunday and “will be able to move thousands of people a day” out of Afghanistan.
“Capacity will not be an issue,” he said.
© 2021 AFP