Afghanistan: Taliban declares 'victory' as US sends more troops to evacuate Kabul
One of the Taliban's most senior officials has declared that the movement's swift victory over the Afghan government was an "unrivalled feat", welcoming the prospect of again governing Afghanistan 20 years after the US intervention began.
In a brief video statement released late on Sunday, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the head of the Taliban's political bureau and its co-founder, said the "unexpected victory", which saw all of the country's major cities fall within a week, was swift and unprecedented.
"We did not expect to succeed this way, but God was on our side," Baradar said.
Still, Baradar, who was freed from a Pakistani jail at the request of the US less than three years ago, said the real test would begin now, as the Taliban works to meet the expectations of the people and resolve their problems.
It was unclear whether Baradar was meant to assume leadership of Afghanistan. Internationally recognised President Ashraf Ghani left the country earlier on Sunday without addressing how power would be transferred following the Taliban's sweep across the country.
President Ghani is said to have fled to Uzbekistan, telling reporters that he left the country to avoid further bloodshed.
Not long after Baradar's announcement, Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel that the war in Afghanistan is over and that the group can assure the international community that it will provide safety for Afghan citizens and diplomatic missions.
'We do not think that foreign forces will repeat their failed experience in Afghanistan once again'
- Mohammad Naeem, Taliban spokesman
"We are ready to have a dialogue with all Afghan figures and will guarantee them the necessary protection," Naeem said.
Noting President Ghani's decision to leave the country, Naeem said that it wasn't taken into account and "even those close to him did not expect it".
"We have reached what we were seeking, which is the freedom of our country and the independence of our people," he said.
"We will not allow anyone to use our lands to target anyone, and we do not want to harm others," he continued, adding that the Taliban won't interfere in the affairs of others and, in return, won't allow interference in their affairs.
"We do not think that foreign forces will repeat their failed experience in Afghanistan once again," Naeem said while stressing the group's willingness to deal with the concerns of the international community through dialogue.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has authorised another 1,000 US troops to help evacuate citizens and Afghans who worked for them from Kabul, as the US embassy warns that the security situation at the city's airport is changing quickly.
A US official, speaking to Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said the addition brings the total number of troops in Afghanistan temporarily to 6,000. The additional soldiers will come from the 82nd Airborne Division, which has been on standby.
Residents reported sporadic gunfire in the area of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, the main point of evacuations out of Afghanistan, as diplomats, aid workers and others continued evacuation efforts after the Taliban entered Kabul.
"There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place," the US embassy said in a security alert earlier on Sunday.
Naeem, the Taliban spokesman, said that no diplomatic body or any of its headquarters have been targeted.
Earlier on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that US embassy staff were being ferried by helicopter from the diplomatic compound to the airport, about 3 miles away on the northeastern side of the city.
"We're working to make sure that our personnel are safe and secure. We're relocating the men and women of our embassy to a location at the airport," Blinken told ABC news.
Asked if the evacuation was evocative of the US departure from Vietnam in 1975, he said: "Let's take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon."
A Nato official said all commercial flights had been suspended and only military aircraft were allowed to operate. The alliance said it was helping to keep the airport running.
France and Germany, members of Nato, said on Sunday they were moving their diplomats to the airport and sending military transport planes to Kabul to evacuate their citizens and their Afghan helpers.
'An endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me'
- Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State
The United Arab Emirates also announced that it would be assisting the evacuation of foreign diplomatic staff from Afghanistan through its airports.
Western embassies and aid agencies began evacuating civilian staff from Afghanistan on Friday after the Taliban captured the country's second-and third-biggest cities, Kandahar and Herat.
Meanwhile, US officials have said that they continue to weigh whether more troops are needed, as another 3,000 are on standby in Kuwait.
'A pre-9/11 state'
Washington invested billions of dollars over four US administrations in Afghan government forces, giving them advantages over the Taliban, but they were still unable to defend the country in the face of the group's advance, Secretary of State Blinken told CNN earlier on Sunday.
The United States' original mission in Afghanistan, launched to oust al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, had been fulfilled, Blinken said, saying Washington had prevented further Taliban attacks.
'This is an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. This will be a stain on Biden’s presidency'
- Michael McCaul, Congressman
But Biden has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to the plan to withdraw, which was agreed under his Republican predecessor Donald Trump. On Saturday, Biden defended his decision, saying "an endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me".
Republican lawmaker Michael McCaul said a Taliban takeover would revive the threat to the United States.
"We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state. A breeding ground for terrorism," he told CNN on Sunday.
"This is an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. This will be a stain on Biden’s presidency and he will have blood on his hands … He owns this," he continued.
Biden met with his national security team on Sunday by secure videoconference from the presidential retreat at Camp David to hear updates on evacuations and the security situation, a White House official said.
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat like Biden, said at a news conference that the safety of US personnel and of Afghans who supported the Americans should be Washington's top concern.
"Job number one is for us to bring back, first, all American personnel ... But second, all of the brave Afghans who helped our military, they have to be provided an exit to come to America," Schumer said.