Taliban Take Presidential Palace as Kabul Falls With Americans, Afghans Still Trapped
U.S. races yet another 1,000 troops to Kabul. Total force on ground to jump to 6,000 within days.
Updated: Aug. 15, 8:13 p.m.
The Taliban completed their shocking takeover of Afghanistan on Sunday, as President Ashraf Ghani fled, the U.S. ambassador took down the American flag and retreated to the airport, and insurgents whom the United States fought for two decades took the seat of power.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military rushed a second battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division to Kabul to protect the last bastion of safe ground for Westerners and those who worked with them in the long war there.
Late on Sunday, Taliban fighters were seen inside the presidential palace standing over Ghani’s former desk in what Al Jazeera television described as a “handover.”
At Hamid Karzai International Airport, scenes of chaos unfolded as civilians crowded aboard aircraft, according to unverified video feeds posted to Twitter and reported on by CNN.
In a message to Americans still in Afghanistan, U.S. Embassy staff cautioned that “the security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place.”
The unfolding emergency prompted the Pentagon to speed even more troops to Kabul to secure the airfield, the only remaining viable escape. The additional battalion will bring the total number of troops on the ground holding back the Taliban to 6,000, a defense official said on the condition they not be identified.
In a joint statement issued late Sunday, officials with the State Department and Defense Department said the United States will be taking over the airport to facilitate the departure of Americans and also those who had worked with the coalition and “particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”
Taking over the control tower will help get flights moving in and out of the airport again. All commercial flights had been frozen earlier on Sunday, cutting off one of the primary routes of escape for local citizens.
“Over the next 48 hours, we will have expanded our security presence to nearly 6,000 troops, with a mission focused solely on facilitating these efforts and will be taking over air traffic control,” the joint State-DOD statement said. “Tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals.”
The U.S. decision to send more troops to Kabul was accompanied by additional forces from the U.K. and a commitment by NATO to see the evacuation through.
An additional 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade are also headed to Kabul to assist in the evacuation of British nationals, Sky News reported.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Sunday that NATO forces would also remain at the airport to “facilitate and coordinate evacuations.”
But the rapid downward spiral of U.S. influence in Afghanistan and the chaotic departure from the capital drew fast criticism from Republicans, who pounced on Biden, blaming the president for intelligence failures that did not foresee the swift fall of Afghanistan.
“President Biden owns this mess. The blood is on his hands,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “He had a choice; instead of choosing the responsible approach, he chose to rely on political polls, not data from his military leaders and the intelligence community about the conditions on the ground.”
The Biden administration has insisted it was stuck with the withdrawal deadline agreed to by former President Donald Trump, who signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove all American troops by May 1, 2021.
For years, when previous administrations tried to end America’s operations in Afghanistan, senior Pentagon leaders persuaded the president to keep a contingent of U.S. forces on the ground. But Biden had been committed to completing the withdrawal as he took office, saying that breaking with Trump’s negotiated agreement would have put U.S. troops at risk.
Mark Esper, who as defense secretary pushed back against Trump’s desire to get out of Afghanistan, took to Twitter Sunday to weigh in on the fall: “Both presidents hastened the Afghan government’s collapse,” Esper tweeted. “Difficult days are ahead for the Afghan people, who deserved far better leadership than what they had. A humanitarian crisis is now unfolding before us.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the current administration in a contentious appearance on CNN on Sunday. When anchor Jake Tapper asked how the administration got the withdrawal “so wrong,” Blinken countered that there was no way to keep the country from falling with the small number of forces that were in Afghanistan when Biden took office.
“The fact of the matter is, had the president decided to keep forces in Afghanistan beyond May 1, attacks would have resumed on our forces,” Blinken said. “The offensive you’re seeing across the country now to take these provincial capitals would have commenced, and we would have been back at war with the Taliban, and I’d probably be on this program today explaining why we were sending tens of thousands of American forces back into Afghanistan and back to war, something the American people simply don’t support.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a combat veteran who served with the Iowa National Guard, said the Taliban’s substantial and rapid gains leave the United States open to the risk of terrorist attacks.
“As we turn our back on what the president calls a ‘forever war,’ we must be clear-eyed about what could result from this rushed exit out of Afghanistan,” Ernst wrote in an op-ed for Fox. “A reinvigorated Taliban in Afghanistan could lead to increased threats of terrorist attacks and endanger our national security.”