Afghan president addresses nation as Taliban close in on Kabul

Taliban fighters pictured in a vehicle of Afghan National Directorate of Security on a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021.
Taliban fighters pictured in a vehicle of Afghan National Directorate of Security on a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. © AFP

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani delivered a televised address on Saturday in a bid to rally troops defending Kabul as the Taliban tightened their territorial stranglehold around the capital and US Marines returned to oversee emergency evacuations.


Ghani said he was ordering the Afghan military to remobilise as they seek to defend the capital from the Taliban after the insurgents’ astonishing blitz through Afghanistan over the past week.

“In the current situation, the remobilisation of our security and defence forces is our top priority, and serious steps are being taken in this regard,” he said.

The focus must also be on “preventing further instability, violence and displacement of people”, Ghani added.

With the country's second- and third-largest cities Kandahar and Herat having fallen into Taliban hands, Kabul has become the besieged last stand for government forces who have offered little or no resistance elsewhere.

Douglas Herbert screengrab
Douglas Herbert screengrab © FRANCE 24 screengrab

Early Saturday, the Taliban seized a province just south of Kabul and launched a multi-pronged assault on a major city in the north defended by powerful former warlords, Afghan officials said.

The Islamist insurgents captured all of Logar and detained its provincial officials, said Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province, adding that the Taliban have reached the Char Asyab district, just 11 kilometres (7 miles) south of the capital, Kabul.

The Taliban also attacked the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif from several directions, setting off heavy fighting on its outskirts, according to Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

Later on Saturday, the militant group seized Sharana, the capital of the eastern Paktika region, an MP from the province told AP.

“Clearly from their actions, it appears as if [the Taliban] are trying to get Kabul isolated,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing.

Scramble to evacuate

Insurgent fighters are now camped just 50 kilometres away from the capital, leaving the US and other countries scrambling to airlift their nationals out of Kabul ahead of a feared all-out assault.

Kirby said “elements” of a battalion were now in Kabul, the vanguard of three Marine and Army battalions that the US was sending to the city by the end of the weekend to help more Americans and their Afghan colleagues get out quickly.

Helicopters flitted back and forth between Kabul's airport and the sprawling US diplomatic compound in the heavily fortified Green Zone – 46 years after the (in)famous moment when choppers evacuated Americans from Saigon, signalling the end of the Vietnam War.

US embassy staff in Kabul were ordered to begin shredding and burning sensitive material, as units from a planned re-deployment of 3,000 American troops started arriving to secure the airport and oversee the evacuations.

A host of European countries – including Britain, Germany, Denmark and Spain – all announced the withdrawal of personnel from their respective embassies on Friday.

Fear and anguish in Kabul

For Kabul residents and the tens of thousands who have sought refuge there in recent weeks, the overwhelming mood was one of confusion and fear of what lies ahead.

“We don't know what is going on,” one resident, Khairddin Logari, told AFP.

Muzhda, 35, a single woman who arrived in the capital with her two sisters after fleeing nearby Parwan, said she was terrified for the future.

“I am crying day and night,” she told AFP. “I have turned down marriage proposals in the past [...] If the Taliban come and force me to marry, I will commit suicide.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply disturbed" by accounts of poor treatment of women in areas seized by the Taliban, who imposed an ultra-austere brand of Islam on Afghanistan during their 1996-2001 rule.

“It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women being ripped away,” Guterres said.

The scale and speed of the Taliban advance has shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country after toppling the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks nearly 20 years ago.

Individual soldiers, units and even whole divisions of Afghan troops have surrendered ahead of US President Joe Biden's August 31 deadline for complete US withdrawal – handing the insurgents even more vehicles and military hardware to fuel their lightning advance.

Evacuation a blow to Afghan morale?

Despite the frantic evacuation efforts, the Biden administration continues to insist that a complete Taliban takeover is not inevitable.

“Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment,” Kirby said on Friday.

The Pentagon spokesman reiterated the Biden administration's assertion that Afghan security forces have tangible advantages over the insurgents, including a viable air force and superior numbers – suggesting that Afghan forces lack the motivation to fight against what seems like the Taliban’s decisive momentum.

But the announcement that 3,000 US troops would go to to Kabul to pull out American diplomats and embassy staff likely made Afghan morale even worse, Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University told AP.

“The message sent to Afghans is: ‘The city of Kabul is going to fall so fast that we can’t organise an orderly withdrawal from the embassy,'” Biddle said. This suggests to Afghans that the Americans see little future for the government and that “this place could be toast within hours".

Accelerated Taliban offensive

The Taliban offensive has accelerated in recent days, with the capture of Herat in the north on Thursday and, just hours later, the seizure of Kandahar – the group's spiritual heartland in the south.

Kandahar resident Abdul Nafi told AFP the city was calm after government forces abandoned it for the sanctuary of military facilities outside, where they were negotiating terms of surrender.

“I came out this morning, I saw Taliban white flags in most squares of the city,” he said. “I thought it might be the first day of Eid.”

Pro-Taliban social media accounts have boasted of the vast spoils of war captured by the insurgents – posting photos of armoured vehicles, heavy weapons, and even a drone seized by their fighters at abandoned military bases.

In Herat, the Taliban captured long-time strongman Ismail Khan, who helped lead the defence of the provincial capital along with his militia fighters.

The only other cities of any significance not to be taken yet were Jalalabad, Gardez and Khost – all southern, Pashtun-dominated cities, unlikely to offer much resistance now.

Despite the critical situation in Afghanistan, domestic political calculations make Biden unlikely to U-turn, said David Smith, the Guardian's Washington Bureau Chief. “The bottom line – which certainly the White House is betting on – is that opinion polls show strong support for this policy of withdrawal,” he told FRANCE 24.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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