Kabul, August 16 (Reuters) – The Taliban declared the war in Afghanistan was over after insurgents took control of the presidential palace in Kabul as U.S.-led forces departed and Western nations scrambled on Monday to evacuate their citizens.
President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered the capital virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed, while hundreds of Afghans desperate to leave flooded Kabul airport.
“Today is a great day for the Afghan people and the mujahideen. They have witnessed the fruits of their efforts and their sacrifices for 20 years,” Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV.
“Thanks to God, the war is over in the country.”
It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as Afghan forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.
Al Jazeera broadcast footage of what it said were Taliban commanders in the presidential palace with dozens of armed fighters.
Naeem said the form of the new regime in Afghanistan would be made clear soon, adding the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and calling for peaceful international relations.
“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.”
A Taliban leader told Reuters the insurgents were regrouping from different provinces, and would wait until foreign forces had left the country before creating a new governance structure.
The leader, who requested anonymity, said Taliban fighters had been “ordered to allow Afghans to resume daily activities and do nothing to scare civilians.”
“Normal life will continue in a much better way, that’s all I can say for now,” he told Reuters via Whatsapp.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said early on Monday that all embassy personnel, including Ambassador Ross Wilson, had been transferred to Kabul airport to await evacuation and the American flag had been lowered and removed from the embassy compound.
Hundreds of Afghans invaded the airport’s runways in the dark, pulling luggage and jostling for a place on one of the last commercial flights to leave the country before U.S. forces took over air traffic control on Sunday.
“How can they hold the airport and dictate terms and conditions to Afghans?” said Rakhshanda Jilali, a human rights activist who was trying to get to Pakistan.
“This is our airport but we are seeing diplomats being evacuated while we wait in complete uncertainty,” Jilali, who said she had received multiple death threats, told Reuters via Whatsapp from the airport.
More than 60 western countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Japan, issued a joint statement saying all Afghans and international citizens who wanted to leave the country must be allowed to depart.
“The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity,” the statement said. “We in the international community stand ready to assist them.”
Aid group Emergency said 80 wounded people had been brought to its hospital in Kabul, which was at capacity, and that it was only admitting people with life-threatening injuries.
In a Facebook post, Ghani said he had left the country to avoid clashes with the Taliban that would endanger millions of residents of Kabul.
Some social media users in Kabul branded Ghani, who did not disclose his location, a coward for leaving them in chaos. A tweet from the verified account of the Afghan Embassy in India said: “We are all banging our heads in shame.”
In Washington, opponents of President Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said the chaos was caused by a failure of leadership.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices in their imposition of sharia, or Islamic religious law. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
“We are ready to have a dialogue with all Afghan figures and will guarantee them the necessary protection,” Naeem told Al Jazeera Mubasher TV.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Taliban and all other parties to exercise the utmost restraint, and expressed particular concern about the future of women and girls in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon on Sunday authorized another 1,000 troops to help evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for them, expanding its security presence on the ground to almost 6,000 troops within the next 48 hours.
European nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, also said they were working to get citizens as well as some Afghan employees out of the country.
Russia said it saw no need to evacuate its embassy for the time being. Turkey said its embassy would continue operations.
Asked if images of helicopters ferrying personnel were evocative of the United States’ departure from Vietnam in 1975, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News: “Let’s take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon.”
Biden has faced rising domestic criticism after sticking to a plan, initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan by Aug. 31.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blamed Biden for what he called a “shameful failure of American leadership”.
“Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low,” McConnell said.
Naeem said the Taliban would adopt an international policy of two-way non-interference.
“We do not think that foreign forces will repeat their failed experience in Afghanistan once again.”