The day after the Taliban installed themselves in the presidential palace in Kabul, seizing control over Afghanistan two decades after being toppled from power by the U.S. military, fears intensified on Monday about a return to the Taliban’s brutal rule and the threat of reprisal killings.
Kabul’s international airport was under the protection of foreign forces, including thousands of U.S. soldiers sent to the country to assist in a hasty evacuation. It was a scene of desperation, sadness and panic.
Thousands of Afghans flooded the tarmac on Monday morning, at one point swarming around a departing U.S. military plane as it taxied down the runway. Images of people clinging to a hulking U.S. military transport, even as it left the ground, quickly circulated around the world. It seemed to capture the moment more vividly than words: a symbol of America’s military might, flying out of the country even as Afghans hung on against all hope.
President Biden defended his decision on Monday to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, arguing that the U.S. mission there was complete and that nation building was never the initial goal.
“I’ve learned the hard way, there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,’’ he said from the White House after cutting short a visit to Camp David. “This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.”
Worries pervaded Kabul, the capital, about the potential for violence as the Taliban filled the city and the Afghan government crumbled. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the insurgents entered the city on Sunday. A U.S. military official who was not authorized to speak publicly said U.S. armed forces were not involved in Mr. Ghani’s departure.
In remarkable scenes broadcast on Al Jazeera, Taliban leaders ensconced themselves in the palace only hours after Mr. Ghani fled — taking control over what was once one of the most secure locations in the country and a symbol of the nation that the United States spent so much money and sacrificed so much blood to uphold.
Though not a formal surrender, it might as well have been.
In the video, the head of the Afghan presidential security guard shook hands with a Taliban commander in one of the palace buildings and said he had accompanied the Taliban commander at the request of the senior Afghan government negotiator.
“I say welcome to them, and I congratulate them,” the official said.
Afghan officials in other cities were filmed handing over power to insurgent leaders. Former President Hamid Karzai said he had formed a council with other political leaders to coordinate a peaceful transition to a new Taliban government. Mr. Karzai also asked the head of the Presidential Protection Service to remain at his post and ensure that the palace was not looted.
Early Taliban actions in other cities under their control offered a glimpse of what the future might hold. In Kunduz, which fell on Aug. 8, they set up checkpoints and went door to door in search of absentee civil servants, warning that any who did not return to work would be punished.
The change in atmosphere in Kabul was as swift as it was frightening for many who thought that they could build a life under the protection of their American allies.
Some in the city said the Taliban had already visited government officials’ homes. They entered the home of one former official in western Kabul and removed his cars and took over the home of a former governor in another part of town.
In other parts of the country, there were reports that fighters were searching for people they consider collaborators of the Americans and the fallen government.
Residents of Kabul began tearing down advertisements that showed women without head scarves for fear of upsetting the Taliban, whose ideology excludes women from much of public life.
Some police officers were taken into custody by Taliban fighters, while others were seen changing into civilian clothes and trying to flee.
The Taliban said their forces had entered Kabul to ensure order and public safety.
A member of the Taliban’s negotiating team in Qatar told the BBC that “there will be no revenge” on civilians. “We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe,” Suhail Shaheen said on Sunday night. “There will be no revenge on anyone.”
The crowds outside Kabul’s international airport swelled on Monday morning, leaving the fences and security forces straining to contain the mass of people desperate to escape Afghanistan as the Taliban took control.
They rushed through the perimeter of the airport’s civilian section and swarmed the tarmac. Soldiers stood guard, many with weapons drawn.
EPA, via Shutterstock
Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
As flights prepared to depart, people clung dangerously to the sides of military planes even as one taxied down the runway. A U.S. military official confirmed that some Afghans were killed in the airplane incident. However, the official could not confirm how many died.
As the chaos spread, U.S. troops took control of the airport’s civilian section, while people rushed through the boarding gates and tried to push their way onto two commercial planes that were parked beside the terminal.
With civilian air travel temporarily halted, the arriving and departing military planes underscored the stark divide between foreign nationals and some Afghans who were a flight away from safety, and many more who would have no escape.
Evacuation flights resumed on Monday evening, the Pentagon said, after suspending them during the day.
The U.S. government said that in the coming days it would evacuate thousands of American citizens, embassy employees and their families, and “particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”
The desperation was evident as some people broke down in tears, recognizing that their chance of escape was slim. Reports of gunfire also circulated throughout the morning.
Although the Taliban has seized control of the country, there is no government in any real sense. That made it hard to get reliable information, both for people inside the country and the wider world watching the events unfold.
Twenty years after the United States invaded Afghanistan, the airport was the nation’s final redoubt, one of the last places in the capital not controlled by the Taliban. The State Department said all embassy personnel had been evacuated to the airport, where they were being defended by the U.S. military.
But for the thousands of others hoping to find refuge, there was no escape. One international worker for a humanitarian group who was trying to get to the airport was told that no one would be allowed to leave the country now without permission from the “new government.”
Flights of U.S. military planes bringing thousands of Marine and Army reinforcements to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul resumed on Monday evening after troops were able to secure the airport.
Thousands of Afghans had earlier breached security on the civilian side of the airport, bringing operations to a halt.
About 3,500 U.S. Marines and soldiers were expected to be on the ground at the airport by Monday evening, with another 2,500 troops en route, Pentagon officials said.
A day after the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, U.S. warplanes and armed drones flew cover over the airport but did not carry out airstrikes, the official said.
A military official disclosed for the first time that Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, had met in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday with senior Taliban representatives.
In a 45-minute meeting, General McKenzie told the Taliban officials that the United States would defend itself during the evacuations of American personnel and Afghan civilians at the airport, and warned the insurgents not to interfere in the operation, the official said.
General McKenzie, who assumed command last month of the residual U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, flew to Qatar over the weekend to oversee the mission.
U.S. troops fatally shot at least two armed men who approached the Americans at the airport security perimeter and brandished their weapons, the military official said. But otherwise Taliban fighters did not appear to be interfering with the frenzied evacuation at the airport.
WASHINGTON — President Biden offered a defiant defense on Monday of his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, returning to the White House from a weekend at Camp David amid chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport following the collapse of the Afghanistan government to the Taliban.
Speaking to the American people from the ornate East Room, Mr. Biden stood by his decision to end the longest war in United States history and rejected criticism from allies and adversaries about the events that left hundreds of Afghans desperately running after military planes as they ferried people to safety out of the country.
“The choice I had to make as your president was either to follow through on the agreement to draw down our forces,” Mr. Biden said, “or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat and lurching into the third decade of conflict.”
Mr. Biden, who immediately left the White House to return to Camp David, acknowledged the truth told by dramatic images over the past 72 hours: a frantic scramble to evacuate the American embassy in Kabul in the face of advancing Taliban fighters, which has drawn grim comparisons to the country’s retreat from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. The president conceded during his remarks that the result of his decision to pull out troops had become “hard and messy.”
But he rejected the analogy, insisting that the administration had planned for the possibility of a rapid Taliban takeover and expressed pride that diplomats and other Americans had been evacuated to relative safety at the Kabul airport, which was in the process of being secured by several thousand American troops. And he blamed the fall of the Afghan regime on the failure of the country’s military and political leaders to stand up for themselves.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said, accusing the military of laying down their arms after two decades of U.S. training and hundreds of billions of dollars in equipment and resources. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
Mr. Biden vowed again to rescue thousands of Afghans who had helped Americans during the two-decade conflict, but the fate of many who remained in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan was uncertain Monday.
With thousands desperate to escape the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, other countries are bracing for a flood of people seeking refuge.
Five Mediterranean countries on the forefront of mass migration to Europe — Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain — have requested European Union-level talks on Wednesday about how to respond, according Greece’s migration ministry.
There are also concerns about refugees flowing to Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.
Canada said last week that it would resettle more than 20,000 Afghan citizens from groups that it considers likely targets of the Taliban, including leading women, rights workers and L.G.B.T.Q. people.
“We will continue to work to get as many Afghan interpreters and their families out as quickly as possible as long as the security situation holds,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Sunday, “and we will continue to work over the coming months to resettle refugees.”
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday that more than 430 embassy employees and their families had been resettled there since April and that the government was working to evacuate more.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called on the Taliban “to acknowledge what the international community has called for: human rights and the safety of their people.”
She declined to say whether New Zealand would recognize a Taliban-led government.
“What we want to see is human rights upheld. We want to see women and girls being able to access work and education,” she said at a news conference. “These are things that traditionally have not been available to them when there has been governance by the Taliban.”
The United Nations’ leader and the Security Council appealed on Monday for an end to hostilities in Afghanistan, humanitarian aid to the country and the creation of a representative government that will protect the rights of women, prevent human rights abuses and keep the country from once again becoming a haven for global terrorist plots.
The 15-member Security Council held an emergency meeting on the rapidly escalating chaos a day after Kabul and the government fell to Taliban forces. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and diplomats conveyed alarm but also tacitly acknowledged that the Taliban effectively controlled Afghanistan and the era of foreign military intervention was over.
The Council statement, agreed by consensus, called for “an immediate end to the violence in Afghanistan, the restoration of security, civil and constitutional order, and urgent talks to resolve the current crisis of authority in the country and to arrive at a peaceful settlement through an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of national reconciliation.”
As terrified Afghans flocked to the airport in Kabul, rushing the runway and clinging to U.S. military airplanes scrambling to airlift Americans and Afghan allies, Mr. Guterres said the U.N. remained committed to providing aid and other services in Afghanistan. About 18 million people in the country, half of its population, currently need humanitarian assistance.
“At this grave hour, I urge all parties, especially the Taliban, to exercise utmost restraint to protect lives and to ensure that humanitarian needs are met,” Mr. Guterres said in his prepared remarks.
He urged all other countries “to be willing to receive Afghan refugees and refrain from any deportations.”
Ghulam Isaczai, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.N., said Kabul residents reported the Taliban had already started searching houses, registering names. He said people were living “in absolute fear right now.”
While Council members spoke of their concerns that the rights gained for women and girls, journalists and activists would be lost and terrorist groups would shelter in the country, there was little sign of a plan for preventing those fears from becoming reality.
Afghan leaders who have remained in the country, including Hamid Karzai, the former longtime president, say they want to negotiate formation of a government with the Taliban, but it is not clear that the victorious insurgents have any interest in compromise.
Afghanistan surged toward the top of U.N. humanitarian priorities over the past few weeks as it became increasingly clear that the Afghan government was collapsing. On Friday, Mr. Guterres said the country was “spinning out of control.”
It remains unclear how the United Nations will regard the Taliban should the militant movement declare itself the legitimate power in Afghanistan and demand a seat in the 193-member organization. Many countries have condemned the Taliban’s brutality and would probably not recognize such a declaration.
The United Nations employs roughly 3,000 employees who are Afghan and about 720 international staff members in Afghanistan, although roughly half of the international employees have been working outside the country since the coronavirus pandemic started. U.N. officials have said that there are no plans to evacuate any staff members from the country.
The Taliban have pledged not to interfere in U.N. aid operations, but they attacked a U.N. office in the western city of Herat on July 30, and a local security official guarding the office was killed.
A group of 26 U.N. human rights experts issued a joint statement on Monday saying it was unacceptable for countries to sit on the sidelines as a group labeled terrorists by the Security Council takes over Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is a test case for the value of the U.N. Charter, and the commitment of States to prevent the scourge of terrorism from destroying rights-bearing societies and values,” the statement said.
European leaders should prevent mass migration of Afghans into the continent following the Taliban’s return to power, President Emmanuel Macron of France said on Monday, reflecting a hardened European view on a volatile political issue.
“Europe alone cannot assume the consequences of the current situation,” Mr. Macron said in a broadcast statement. He called on the European Union to prevent a major flow of asylum-seekers.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the leading voice for accepting refugees during the 2015-16 migrant crisis, when Germany accepted far more people than any other country, more than one million, primarily from Syria.
But on Monday, she said that Germany should support Afghanistan’s neighbors so those fleeing would remain there rather than try to reach Europe.
Ben Wallace, the British defense secretary, told Sky News on Monday that with the Taliban victory, “I suspect we will see significant migrant flows around the world.” Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are already being affected, he said.
Their statements came a few days after six E.U. countries — Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands — called jointly for a policy of deporting migrants back to Afghanistan, and for talks with the Afghan government on taking them back.
They reversed course a few days later, as the Afghan government crumbled, and suspended forced deportations. It remains unclear how the Taliban takeover will influence their views.
The 2015-16 crisis became a flash point in Europe and continues to shape its politics today. Right-wing nationalists across Europe painted the wave of people from the Middle East and Africa as a threat to European identity and culture, and capitalized on it in elections.
Mr. Macron has staked out conservative positions ahead of an election next year, and analysts say he is trying to cede as little room as possible to a leading challenger, the far-right, anti-immigrant politician Marine Le Pen.
The flow of migrants into Europe has slowed to a fraction of what it was five to six years ago, and the main burden shifted to Turkey, which has been sheltering millions of asylum seekers, preventing them from moving on to Europe.
E.U. foreign ministers will meet to discuss Afghanistan on Tuesday, and the issue is all but certain to come up in the European Commission’s biweekly news conference.
Having sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan during two decades of conflict, Britain is one of the biggest losers from a Taliban takeover that has humiliated the United States and its allies and left thousands stranded.
Estimates vary, but about 3,000 Britons are thought to be in Afghanistan. Officials say they are confident that the citizens can be evacuated as part of an airlift expected to involve hundreds each day. They are less sure about being able to provide a safe exit to all of the Afghans who aided the British and whose lives could now be at risk.
Time is critical, because once the U.S. withdraws the remainder of its forces, there will be no way of safely having planes land and take off.
One option to speed up the process is to initially fly people leaving Kabul to a safe Middle Eastern country rather than repatriating them directly to Britain.
On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired a meeting of an emergency committee in Downing Street after cutting short his vacation. Britain’s Parliament is also being recalled from its summer recess to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan on Wednesday amid growing alarm about the humanitarian and strategic consequences of the Taliban’s advances.
The last time Parliament was recalled for an emergency session to discuss a similar foreign policy question was in 2014, during a crisis in Iraq.
In the past two decades, 150,000 British military personnel have served in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand Province, though combat missions ended in 2014, leaving behind a small contingent for support work.
In all, 457 British personnel died in Afghanistan, and on Monday, amid the chaotic scenes in Afghanistan, the front-page headline of one tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, read: “What the hell did they all die for?”
Last month, Britain announced the withdrawal of its remaining forces from Afghanistan to coincide with the American military’s pullout, though it said last week that it was sending an additional 600 military personnel to help with the evacuation.
This weekend, about 370 embassy employees and British citizens were flown out of the country, the British defense ministry said.
Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, acknowledged on Monday that some of those who aided the United States and its allies in the last two decades in Afghanistan risked being abandoned to their fate under the Taliban.
“It’s a really deep part of the regret for me that some people won’t get back,” he told LBC Radio, his voice breaking with emotion. “Some people won’t get back, and we will have to do our best in third countries to process those people.”
Asked why he felt it so personally, Mr. Wallace started his reply by saying that it was because of his experience as a soldier. But he then added: “Because it’s sad, and because the West has done what it has done and we have to do our best to get people and stand by our obligations and 20 years of sacrifice is what it is.”
A high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, worries that she now will not be allowed to graduate.
The girl, Wahida Sadeqi, 17, like many Afghan civilians in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal and ahead of a Taliban victory, keeps asking the same question: What will happen to me?
The American withdrawal, which effectively ends the longest war on foreign soil in United States history, is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.
“I am so worried about my future. It seems so murky. If the Taliban take over, I lose my identity,” said Ms. Sadeqi, an 11th grader at Pardis High School in Kabul. “It is about my existence. It is not about their withdrawal. I was born in 2004, and I have no idea what the Taliban did to women, but I know women were banned from everything.”
Uncertainty hangs over virtually every facet of life in Afghanistan. It is unclear what the future holds and whether the fighting will ever stop. For two decades, American leaders have pledged peace, prosperity, democracy, the end of terrorism and rights for women.
Few of those promises have materialized in vast areas of Afghanistan, but now even in the cities where real progress occurred, there is fear that everything will be lost when the Americans leave.
The Taliban, the extremist group that once controlled most of the country and continues to fight the government, insist that the elected president step down. Militias are increasing in prominence and power, and there is talk of a lengthy civil war.
Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, who sought refuge in Pakistan, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.
The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.
Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it barred women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes — though this was already custom for many women in rural parts of the country.
“It is too early to comment on the subject. We need to know much more,” Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator who is involved in the continuing peace talks with the Taliban, said in April. “One thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country — no one can deny them their rights or status.”
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — The U.S.-supplied Afghan Air Force took to the skies for a final flight overnight Sunday to Monday — not to attack the Taliban, as it had so many times before, but to save some of its planes and pilots from capture as the insurgents took control of the country.
At least six military aircraft departed Afghanistan in a flight for safety in former Soviet states to the north. Five landed in Tajikistan, Tajik authorities said. One plane was shot down in Uzbekistan, but its two pilots reportedly parachuted and survived.
The departure of some of the Afghan Air Force’s planes, once the jewels of the American aid program to the Afghan military, kept them and their airmen out of Taliban hands.
It also added to the chaos in the skies in and around Afghanistan. Dozens of passenger planes that have taken off from Hamid Karzai International Airport, also flew to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, neighboring countries with strong cultural ties to Afghanistan. A total of 46 airliners had departed by Monday morning, carrying asylum seekers, many of whom were employees of the airport, Tolo News, an Afghan news agency, reported.
A spokesman for the Uzbek military confirmed it had shot down an airplane that traveled without permission into the country’s airspace. It did not specify the type of plane, but pictures of the wreckage suggested it was a Super Tucano, a turboprop light attack aircraft made by the Brazilian company Embraer and provided by the United States to Afghanistan, according to Paul Hayes, director of Ascend, a U.K.-based aviation safety consultancy.
Uzbek media posted videos showing a pilot in a green flight suit, lying on the ground and receiving medical care.
In Tajikistan, the Ministry of Emergency Situations said three Afghan military airplanes and two military helicopters carrying 143 soldiers and airmen were allowed to land after transmitting distress signals.
“Tajikistan received an SOS signal, and after this in accordance with international obligations the country decided to allow landings,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, Interfax reported.
It was unclear what would happen to the aircraft now in Tajikistan. Afghan pilots had been targets of particular hatred by the Taliban and risked assassination.
The shoot-down in Uzbekistan and the Tajik authorities’ emphasis on their neutrality in allowing landings reflected the hard response that Central Asian nations, worried about antagonizing the Taliban, have had to fleeing Afghan soldiers.
Uzbekistan last week allowed 84 soldiers to cross a bridge to safety but left many more behind. Tajikistan in June and July allowed fleeing soldiers to enter the country but deported nearly all of them back to Afghanistan.
An Uzbek think tank close to the government has argued that what matters in Afghanistan is stability and economic development, whoever is charge.
“They say, ‘we are ready to accept any centralized force that can help Afghanistan,’” Daniel Kiselyov, the editor of Fergana, a Russian-language news site focused on Central Asia, said in a telephone interview. “If the Taliban provides that, they are willing to work with the group,” he said.
A little more than five weeks ago, President Biden uttered these words: “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan.”
Then, digging the hole deeper, he added, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
The scramble to evacuate American civilians and embassy employees from Kabul unfolded live on television — not from the U.S. Embassy roof, but from the landing pad next to the building. And now that the Afghan government has collapsed with astonishing speed, the Taliban seem certain to be back in full control of the country when the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is commemorated less than a month from today — exactly as they were 20 summers ago.
Mr. Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a long-brewing, humiliating final act in America’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Even many of Mr. Biden’s allies who believe he made the right decision to finally exit a war that the United States could not win concede that he made a series of major mistakes in executing the withdrawal.
The questions now are how politically damaging those will prove to be, and whether Americans who cheered at 2020 campaign rallies when both President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Biden promised to get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan will shrug their shoulders and say that it had to end, even if it ended badly.
The people of Kabul were given reassurances that they would be safe, that a deal had been struck to avoid a full-fledged attack by the Taliban on their city. But for many Afghans, the scenes now playing out around them in their capital tell another story.
It was not just that their president had fled the country on Sunday. There were innumerable smaller signs that their world was changing.
Police posts had been abandoned, and the officers had shed their uniforms in favor of civilian garb. Posters of women at beauty salons were painted over — presumably to avoid retribution from Afghanistan’s new fundamentalist rulers. And on the east side of the city, inmates at Kabul’s main prison, many of them Taliban members, seized the opportunity to break out.
“This is the Day of Judgment,” declared one onlooker as he filmed the inmates carrying bundles of belongings away from the prison.
The Afghan interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal, said in the early afternoon that an agreement had been made for a peaceful transfer of power for greater Kabul.
“We have ordered all Afghan National Security Forces divisions and members to stabilize Kabul,” he said in a video statement. “There will be no attack on the city. The agreement for greater Kabul city is that under an interim administration, God willing, power will be transferred.”
Residents seemed unconvinced.
Many had fled to Kabul as their own cities fell. The capital, if nowhere else in their country, seemed that it might provide a haven for at least the near future.
But the future was nearer than almost anyone knew, and on Sunday, with the Taliban in Kabul, many people — among them President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials — were looking for an exit from the country itself.
Afghans and non-Afghans alike headed to the airport, where the scene was chaotic. At the civilian domestic terminal, thousands of Afghans crammed in and swarmed around planes on the tarmac, desperately seeking flights out.
With the evacuation of U.S. diplomats and some civilians underway on Sunday, helicopter after helicopter could be seen ferrying passengers to Kabul’s airport. But many Afghans could do little more than look on in despair.
The Taliban themselves appeared to be trying to strike a tone of reassurance. “Our forces are entering Kabul city with all caution,” they said in a statement.
But as the sun set behind the mountains, the traffic was clogged as crowds grew bigger. More and more Taliban fighters appeared on motorbikes, police pickups and even a Humvee that once belonged to the Afghan security forces.
With rumors rife and reliable information hard to come by, the streets were filled with scenes of panic and desperation.
Sahraa Karimi, the head of Afghan Film, filmed her attempt to flee her neighborhood and posted it on Facebook. The video shows her fleeing on foot, out of breath and clutching at her head scarf as she urges people around her to get out while they can.
“Greetings,” she can be heard saying. “The Taliban have reached the city. We are escaping.”
The sight of gun-toting Taliban fighters behind President Ashraf Ghani’s ornate wooden desk, deep inside the Afghan presidential palace now under their control, served as visual confirmation that power in the country had fully shifted hands.
Few people imagined two decades ago — or even two weeks ago — that the heavily defended palace in a heavily defended capital would fall so swiftly. Just several days ago, Mr. Ghani addressed the nation from behind the same desk, in front of the same painting.
But hours after Mr. Ghani fled the country on Sunday, Taliban leaders were addressing the news media there, saying that they would use the palace to announce the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Their takeover of the palace, known as the Arg, was made peacefully. The head of the Presidential Protection Service, which has guarded it for most of the last two decades, shook hands with a Taliban commander and announced the handover.
The government official, Muhammadullah Amin, said he had been asked to meet and escort the Taliban commander, whom he addressed by the religious title Maulvi, into the palace by the government’s longtime chief negotiator with the Taliban.
“After a few contacts with Maulvi Saheb, I came here together and currently we are in the Gulkhana palace,” he said, referring to one of the palace buildings.
The Taliban commander stood and shook his hand. “I said, ‘We will take a selfie, and now we have taken it together,’” Mr. Amin said.
The encounter, filmed and aired by Al Jazeera on Sunday night, was widely shared on social media.
Mr. Amin said that Mr. Ghani had left from the palace via helicopter for Kabul’s international airport on Sunday afternoon and then boarded a flight out of the country. He did not say where the president had gone, but Mr. Ghani is thought to be in Tajikistan.
“In the beginning here, during the day, the situation was not good,” Mr. Amin said. “Everybody was frightened that, God forbid, something would happen here. Most of the officials left. I myself left.”
The peaceful seizing of the palace stood in contrast to past exchanges of power in Afghanistan, when the palace was the scene of violence and vandalism.
In 1978, rebel troops killed President Mohammad Daud inside the palace, which suffered severe damage during a daylong siege. The next year, President Noor Mohammad Taraki was mortally wounded in a gun battle inside the palace. His successor, Hafizullah Amin, was executed when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and stormed the palace in December 1979.
When the Taliban took control in 1996, fighters damaged parts of the buildings and much of the artwork, according to the government, but successive governments preserved artifacts and gold stored in underground vaults in the palace.
As the world reacts with a combination of shock, sadness and worry to the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government, it remains unclear which global powers might recognize a government led by the Taliban.
Almost five dozen countries, in a joint statement, called on all parties in Afghanistan to allow “the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country.”
“Those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility — and accountability — for the protection of human life and property,” the statement said, “and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order.”
The Taliban got a somewhat warmer reception in China and Russia, both countries that the group’s leaders traveled to last month for diplomatic meetings. The Foreign Ministry in China, which shares a short border with Afghanistan, said Beijing hoped the Taliban would ensure a smooth transition of power and help the Afghan people avoid the chaos of war.
A spokeswoman for the ministry, Hua Chunying, said the Taliban had expressed a desire for good relations with China and said they looked forward to China’s participation in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
In an editorial published on Sunday night, Global Times, a Chinese state-backed nationalist tabloid, said that recent events in Afghanistan illustrated the failure of the U.S. strategy there.
“The United States’ reckless withdrawal also showed how unreliable its commitments to allies are: When its interests require it to abandon its allies, it will not hesitate to find every excuse to do so,” it said.
Russia will decide whether to recognize the Taliban government based on its behavior in the coming days and weeks, Reuters reported, citing a radio interview on Monday by Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan.
Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan is set to meet with the Taliban in Kabul on Tuesday to discuss the security of the Russian Embassy there.
In Europe, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said on Sunday that no country should recognize a Taliban government without consulting others.
“We want a united position amongst all the like-minded, as far as we can get one, so that we do whatever we can to prevent Afghanistan lapsing back into being a breeding ground for terror,” he said.
President Emmanuel Macron of France was expected to speak publicly on Monday night after meeting with his advisers.
MOSCOW — Amid the chaos at Kabul’s airport on Monday, at least one country was not scrambling to get out: Russia.
The Taliban has guaranteed the security of the Russian Embassy in Kabul, a senior Russian official said Monday. The Russian ambassador, who plans to meet with Taliban representatives on Tuesday, said there was no reason for anyone to flee the country and that the Western media was exaggerating the danger of the situation.
“The situation is a good one, calm,” Dmitri Zhirnov, Russia’s ambassador to Kabul, said on Russian state television.
The Taliban fighters now guarding the Russian Embassy, he added, had pledged that they would keep it safe.
“Not a single hair will fall from Russian diplomats,” the Taliban told Russian officials, according to Mr. Zhirnov. “You can work in peace.”
It was a day when Russia, beyond official tut-tutting about the West’s latest failures, was reaping a payoff from the relentless pragmatism of its own Afghan strategy. Russia has spent years courting the Taliban, hosting the group for talks in Moscow even though the Taliban is officially banned in Russia as a terrorist organization.
“It is not for nothing that we have been establishing contacts with the Taliban movement the last seven years,” Zamir N. Kabulov, the special envoy to Afghanistan for President Vladimir V. Putin, said in a radio interview Monday. “We saw that this force would play a leading role in Afghanistan’s future, if not take power entirely.”
Underscoring Russia’s growing sway in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Monday to discuss the evacuation of Americans from Kabul, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Mr. Lavrov, his ministry said, described to Mr. Blinken Russia’s contacts “with representatives of all the main political forces in Afghanistan in the interest of helping to foster stability and rule of law.”
At Russia’s most recent round of talks with the Taliban in Moscow, in July, the group pledged that their military gains would not be a threat to Russia or its interests. Still, Mr. Kabulov said that Russia would not cease considering the Taliban a terrorist organization until all members of the U.N. Security Council, which includes the United States, agreed.
“All members of the Security Council must first make sure that the new government is ready to behave, as we say, in a civilized manner,” Mr. Kabulov said.
There was a hint of schadenfreude to be heard in Moscow, as Russian officials said they were stunned by how quickly Afghanistan’s security forces, trained by the United States and its allies, fell. They pointed out that the pro-American government in Afghanistan collapsed far more quickly than did the one the Soviet Union installed during its own failed war in the 1980s. The Soviet-backed government in Kabul lasted until 1992, three years after the Soviet military had left.
“That was an organized withdrawal” in 1989, Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the Foreign Affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, told the state-run television network RT. “Whereas the Americans leave, and they haven’t even exited Afghan territory before the army they claimed to have prepared turned out to be totally demoralized.”