President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan on Sunday, a top official said, effectively ceding power to the Taliban as they reached the capital Kabul to seal a nationwide military victory in just 10 days.
“The former Afghan President has left the nation, leaving the people to this situation,” Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the peace process, said in a video on his Facebook page.
“God hold him accountable, and the people will have their judgement.”
He gave no indication where Ghani was going, but leading Afghan media group Tolo news suggested he was heading to Tajikistan.
Ghani’s departure from office was one of the key demands of the Taliban in months of peace talks with the government, but he had stubbornly clung to power.
In just over a week, the Taliban have carried out a lightning sweep of the country, with troops incapable of holding onto territory without US military support.
The insurgents said they want a “peaceful transfer” within the next few days, two decades after US-led forces toppled it in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The group ordered its fighters earlier Sunday not to enter the capital, saying the remnants of the government’s forces were responsible for security.
But later, a spokesman tweeted that Taliban forces should enter areas deserted by Afghan forces in order to maintain law and order.
“God forbid the common thieves and robbers in Kabul do not mix, the abusers do not harm the people, the Islamic Emirate ordered its forces to enter the areas of Kabul from which the enemy went,” a statement by the Taliban said.
“There is a risk of theft and robbery.”
There are fears of a security vacuum in the capital as thousands of police and other armed services members have abandoned their posts, uniforms, and even weapons.
The United States began moving its citizens and Afghan staff to Kabul airport, with the help of thousands of troops deployed to the capital to assist with the evacuation.
However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday dismissed comparisons with the chaotic American departure from Saigon in 1975.
“The fact of the matter is this: We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission in mind,” he said.
“That was to deal with the people that attacked us on 9/11. That mission has been successful.”
The Taliban’s imminent takeover triggered fear and panic in Kabul among residents fearful of the group’s hardline brand of Islam.
The scale and speed of the insurgents’ advance have shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country over the past two decades.
President Joe Biden ordered the deployment of an additional 1,000 US troops to help secure the emergency evacuation from Kabul of embassy employees and thousands of Afghans who worked for American forces and now fear Taliban reprisals.
That was on top of the 3,000 American soldiers deployed in recent days, and 1,000 left in-country after Biden announced in May that the final withdrawal of the US military presence in Afghanistan would be completed by September 11.
That decision has come under increased scrutiny given the collapse of the Afghan armed forces, but he insisted Saturday there was no choice.
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth,” Biden said.
Ghani’s government was left completely isolated on Sunday after the insurgents overran the anti-Taliban northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif and the eastern city of Jalalabad.
Like with most of the other captured cities, the seizure of power came after government forces surrendered or retreated.
Videos posted on pro-Taliban social media accounts showed the group’s heavily armed fighters in cities across the country, waving white flags and greeting locals.
Most of the fighters appeared young, suggesting they were most likely infants or unborn when the Taliban was toppled from power in 2001.
As the Taliban closed in on the capital, panicked residents swarmed banks for a second straight day, hoping to withdraw their savings.
Many were already resigned to the Taliban taking power.
“My only wish is that their return leads to peace. That is all we want,” said Kabul shopkeeper Tariq Nezami.
A worker was seen Sunday whitewashing advertising billboards on a beauty parlour featuring a glamorous bride.
For the tens of thousands who have sought refuge in Kabul in recent weeks, the overwhelming mood was one of apprehension and fear.
One doctor who arrived in the capital with his 35-strong family from Kunduz said he planned to return.
“I am worried there will be a lot of fighting here. I would rather return home, where I know it has stopped,” he told AFP, asking not to be named.