The insurgents, after seizing control of the eastern city of Jalalabad, encircled the Afghan capital. A senior American official said key diplomatic staff had been moved to a compound at the airport.
The Taliban’s relentless, rapid advance across Afghanistan brought them on Sunday to the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, the last major city controlled by the government.
The news that the Taliban were encroaching on the capital was certain to alarm thousands of Afghans who had sought refuge there after fleeing the insurgents’ brutal military offensive.
The Taliban, in a statement, said that they were in negotiations with the government and would not take the capital by force. “The Islamic Emirate instructs all its forces to stand at the gates of Kabul, not to try to enter the city,” a spokesman said, using the name by which the insurgents refer to themselves.
The Afghan government had no immediate public response.
The United States military has begun evacuating American diplomatic and civilian staff. A core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul were being moved to a diplomatic facility at the international airport, where they would stay for an unspecified amount of time, according to a senior United States official.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was expected to speak about the situation later Sunday.
After days in which one urban center after another fell to the insurgents, the last major Afghan cities besides Kabul that were still controlled by the government were seized in rapid succession over the weekend.
The insurgents took Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north, late on Saturday, only an hour after breaking through the front lines at the city’s edge. Soon after, government security forces and militias — including those led by the infamous warlords Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Noor — fled, effectively handing control to the insurgents.
On Sunday morning, the Taliban seized the eastern city of Jalalabad. In taking that provincial capital and surrounding areas, the insurgents gained control of the Torkham border crossing, a major trade and transit route between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban offensive, which started in May when the United States began withdrawing troops, gathered speed over the past week. In city after city, the militants took down Afghan government flags and hoisted their own white banners.
Despite two decades of war with American-led forces, the Taliban have survived and thrived, without giving up their vision of creating a state governed by a stringent Islamic code.
After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, movie theaters were closed, the Kabul television station was shut down and the playing of all music was banned. Schools were closed to girls.
Despite many Afghans’ memories of years under Taliban rule before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the insurgents have taken control of much of the country in recent days with only minimal resistance.
Their rapid successes have exposed the weakness of an Afghan military that the United States spent more than $83 billion to support over the past two decades.
As the insurgents’ campaign has accelerated, soldiers and police officers have abandoned the security forces in ever greater numbers, as the cause for which they risked their lives appeared increasingly to be lost.
Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has resisted pressure to step down. In a recorded speech aired on Saturday, he pledged to “prevent further instability” and called for “remobilizing” the country’s military.
But the president is increasingly isolated, and his words seemed detached from the reality around him.
The speed of the Taliban’s advance has thrown exit planning into disarray. While many analysts had believed that the Afghan military could be overrun after international forces withdrew, they thought it would happen over months and years. Now it risks being completed in a matter of days and weeks.
President Biden has accelerated the deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan to help get American citizens out. He made it clear that he would not reverse his decision to withdraw all combat forces.
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats,” Mr. Biden said on Saturday afternoon. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
The deployment that Mr. Biden announced on Saturday to assist with the evacuations will bring the American troop presence to 5,000, if only briefly. He said he still planned to pull all combat forces out of the country and remove them from “harm’s way.”
With most of Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban, and with Kabul one of the last bastions held by government forces, many of the capital’s residents expressed fatalism and fear at the prospect of their home falling into the hands of the armed group.
“God forbid we will see war in Kabul,” said Sayed Akbar, 53, as he sold perfumes on a sidewalk in central Kabul. “People here have gone through 40 years of sorrows. The roads on which we are walking are built on people’s bones.”
Over the past few days, Afghans living in the country’s provinces have fled to Kabul, while many living there have sought to escape abroad. Some said they would have no choice but to fight, while most shared resignation over a reality that could be theirs within weeks: The Taliban were coming.
In the downtown Shar-e Naw neighborhood, where hundreds of people fleeing other parts of Afghanistan have arrived each day, three former students of economics at Jowzjan University, in the north of the country, said they had been forced to leave their city when the Taliban captured it.
“Taliban plundered our belongings,” said Parweez Talash, 24. “We fled so they don’t overrun our lives.”
The rapid advance of the Taliban has caught Western officials by surprise, and many countries said they would repatriate their citizens, close diplomatic missions and resettle Afghans.
But as they contemplated the takeover of Kabul by the armed group, some Afghans said they would have no choice but to try to get by. “I am just a vendor — why would they have any issue with me?” said Shams Ul-Haq, an 18-year-old selling onions at a market in central Kabul.
Many more said they feared that Taliban rule would erase all the advances made by Afghanistan in the past two decades, in areas including women’s rights, education and infrastructure.
“In the last 20 years, we rebuilt this country,” said Eqbal Osmani, 30. “We built roads. We built dams and infrastructure. We had finally brought livelihood and relative peace to this country. I’m most worried that there comes a day when it all gets sabotaged.”
At a mall in Shar-e Naw, three sisters in their 20s who were shopping for dresses for a wedding said they would probably be among the first targeted by the Taliban.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years until the United States invaded in 2001, and under their strict interpretation of Islam, women were forbidden to work, receive an education or even leave their homes without being accompanied by male relatives.
“Taliban don’t have mercy on anyone, let alone on young women like us,” said one of the sisters, Maryam Yusofi, while another, Basira, said she felt abandoned by the United States.
Ms. Yusofi, 27, said that if the Taliban took control of the entire country, Afghanistan would most likely “return to the dark days,” a feeling shared by other young Afghans who had grown up in a nation where U.S. and Afghan forces kept the group at bay.
Murtaza Sultani, 20, said there would be “no going forward.” Asked where he thought he would be in 10 years, Mr. Sultani said: “When the Taliban arrive, they might shut our business. Thirty-year-old Murtaza will probably be long dead.”
Jim Huylebroek and
With their seizure of Jalalabad on Sunday, the Taliban appeared to be on the verge of a complete takeover of Afghanistan. Planes departing the airport in Kabul, the capital, were filled with people fleeing the city.
If there is a consistent theme over two decades of war in Afghanistan, it is the overestimation of the results of the $83 billion the United States has spent since 2001 training and equipping the Afghan security forces and an underestimation of the brutal, wily strategy of the Taliban.
The Pentagon had issued dire warnings to President Biden even before he took office about the potential for the Taliban to overrun the Afghan Army. But intelligence estimates indicated that it might happen in 18 months, not within weeks.
Commanders did know that the afflictions of the Afghan forces had never been cured: the deep corruption, the failure by the government to pay many Afghan soldiers and police officers for months, the defections, the soldiers sent to the front without adequate food and water, let alone arms.
Mr. Biden’s aides say that the persistence of those problems reinforced his belief that the United States could not prop up the Afghan government and its military in perpetuity. In Oval Office meetings this spring, he told aides that staying another year, or even five, would not make a substantial difference and was not worth the risks.
In the end, an Afghan force that did not believe in itself and a U.S. effort that Mr. Biden, and most Americans, no longer believed would alter events combined to bring an ignoble close to America’s longest war. The United States kept forces in Afghanistan far longer than the British did in the 19th century, and twice as long as the Soviets — with roughly the same results.
For Mr. Biden, the last of four American presidents to face painful choices in Afghanistan but the first to get out, the debate about a final withdrawal and the miscalculations over how to execute it began the moment he took office.
“Under Trump, we were one tweet away from complete, precipitous withdrawal,” said Douglas E. Lute, a retired general who directed Afghan strategy at the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“Under Biden, it was clear to everyone who knew him, who saw him pressing for a vastly reduced force more than a decade ago, that he was determined to end U.S. military involvement,” Mr. Lute added, “but the Pentagon believed its own narrative that we would stay forever.”
He continued, “The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning: If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?”
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