‘Peaceful transfer of power’ on the cards as Taliban halt Kabul takeover

Instruct their forces to stand at Afghan capital’s gates, not to enter city

By: News Desk      Published: 01:13 PM, 15 Aug, 2021
‘Peaceful transfer of power’ on the cards as Taliban halt Kabul takeover
Taliban fighters and local people sit on an Afghan National Army (ANA) humvee vehicle on a street in Jalalabad province on Sunday.–AFP

The Taliban fighters have entered the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city, tightening their grip on the nation as tens of thousands fled their rapid advance.

The Taliban and the Afghan government leaders are holding negotiations in Kabul for a peaceful handing over of the government to the Taliban.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani will hand over power to former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali in the coming hours. Mullah Baradar, deputy leader of Taliban, is also expected to arrive in Afghanistan, foreign news agencies reported.

Earlier, the Taliban said in a statement that they have ordered all their forces not to enter Kabul and they want a "transition process".

The Taliban also now hold all of Afghanistan's border crossings amid their offensive across the country. Now, Kabul airport is the only route out of the country.

Transfer to take place peacefully: Minister

Afghanistan's Acting Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzkwal on Sunday said that Kabul will not be attacked and the transfer will take place peacefully. He says the security of Kabul is the responsibility of the security forces. He assured that Afghan forces would ensure the security of the residents in the capital city.

He said there would be a "peaceful transfer of power" to a transitional government, after the Taliban ordered its fighters to hold back from entering Kabul. "The Afghan people should not worry... There will be no attack on the city and there will be a peaceful transfer of power to the transitional government," he said in a recorded speech.

Three Afghan officials told foreign journalists that the Taliban have entered the outskirts of Kabul. Taliban fighters were in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman near Kabul, they said.

Though the Taliban's arrival at the gates of Kabul did not trigger a fight, government offices suddenly began sending workers home early on Sunday as military helicopters buzzed overhead, the Associated Press reported.

Taliban against forceful takeover

Meanwhile, the Taliban said they won't take Kabul "by force", adding that negotiations are underway for a peaceful entering into the capital city.

"Since the capital Kabul is a large and densely populated city, the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate do not intend to enter the city by force or fighting, but rather to enter peacefully through Kabul. Negotiations are underway. Until the transfer process should be completed in a safe and secure manner, no one's head, property and honour should be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul should not be jeopardised," the Taliban's statement read.

Taliban fighters were on the outskirts of Kabul on Sunday and on the brink of a complete military takeover of Afghanistan, but a spokesman said they had been ordered not to enter the city, signalling the insurgents were confident of taking power imminently, as the United States and other nations rushed to evacuate their citizens from the capital.

"The Islamic Emirate instructs all its forces to stand at the gates of Kabul, not to try to enter the city," a spokesman for the Taliban tweeted. "Until the completion of the transition process, the responsibility for the security of Kabul is with the other side (the Afghan government)".

The order came as residents reported seeing insurgents peacefully enter some of Kabul's outer suburbs, triggering panic and fear.

"I saw police taking off their uniforms and putting on shalwar kameez," said one resident, referring to traditional South Asian clothing.

The capture of Kabul would cap an astonishing rout of government forces and warlord militias across all of Afghanistan's major cities achieved in just 10 days. It would also see the Islamic group take back power two decades after US-led forces toppled it in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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 Ashraf Ghani's government was left completely isolated on Sunday after the Taliban claimed 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.

It left the Taliban holding all the cards in any negotiated surrender of the capital.

On Saturday Ghani sought to project authority with a national address in which he spoke of "re-mobilising" the military while seeking a "political solution" to the crisis.

Ghani offered no public comments on Sunday. But there were reports that helicopters have landed at the presidential palace in Kabul to evacuate the Afghan president and other government officials.

Russia not in panic

Russia does not plan to evacuate its embassy in Kabul as Taliban fighters reached the outskirts of the Afghan capital in their blistering military takeover of the country, foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov told the Interfax news agency. 

Kabulov said he is "in direct contact" with Moscow's ambassador in Kabul and that Russian embassy employees continue to work "calmly" and "no evacuation is planned". 

Moscow says emergency UN meeting is planned

Russia is working with other countries to hold an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan as the Taliban completes its military takeover of the country, foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov told Russian news agencies. 

"We are working on this," Kabulov said, adding that the meeting will take place. 

Russia is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with the United States, Britain, France, and China. 

Kabulov also said Moscow does not plan to evacuate its embassy in Kabul, saying the Taliban had offered Russia and other countries -- which he did not name -- security assurances for their missions in Afghanistan

The US and other countries rushed to evacuate their citizens from the capital as Taliban fighters stood on the outskirts of Kabul on Sunday. 

- Evacuations -

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 20-year 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.

- Taliban celebration -

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.

Also See: Pakistan seals Torkham border after Taliban capture Afghan posts

In Mazar-i-Sharif, Taliban fighters quickly took charge on Sunday. "They are parading on their vehicles and motorbikes, firing into the air in celebration," said Atiqullah Ghayor, who lives near the city's famed blue mosque.

Warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, who had led a militia resistance in the city to support government forces, had fled to Uzbekistan, about 30 kilometres to the north, an aide to Noor said.

- Panic -

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.

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 today.

"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.

Who's who behind the Taliban leadership

The Taliban movement's inner workings and leadership have always been largely shrouded in secrecy, even during their rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

As the Islamic group appears to be on the brink of regaining power, here is a rundown of what little is known about its leadership.

- Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader -

Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed leader of the Taliban in a swift power transition after a US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Mansour Akhtar, in 2016.

Before ascending the movement's ranks, Akhundzada was a low-profile religious figure. He is widely believed to have been selected to serve more as a spiritual figurehead than a military commander.

After being appointed leader, Akhundzada secured a pledge of loyalty from Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who showered the religious scholar with praise -- calling him "the emir of the faithful".

This which helped seal his jihadi credentials with the group’s long-time allies.

Akhundzada was tasked with the enormous challenge of unifying a militant movement that briefly fractured during a bitter power struggle following the assassination of his predecessor, and the revelation that the leadership had hid the death of Taliban founder Mullah Omar for years.

The leader's public profile has been largely limited to the release of annual messages during Islamic holidays.

- Mullah Baradar, the founder -

Abdul Ghani Baradar was raised in Kandahar -- the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

Like most Afghans, Baradar's life was forever altered by the Soviet invasion of the country in the late 1970s, transforming him into an insurgent.

He was believed to have fought side-by-side with the one-eyed cleric Mullah Omar.

The two would go on to found the Taliban movement in the early 1990s amid the chaos and corruption of the civil war that erupted after the Soviet withdrawal.

Following the Taliban's collapse in 2001, Baradar is believed to have been among a small group of insurgents who approached interim leader Hamid Karzai with a letter outlining a potential deal that would have seen the militants recognise the new administration.

Arrested in Pakistan in 2010, Baradar was kept in custody until pressure from the United States saw him freed in 2018 and relocated to Qatar. This is where he was appointed head of the Taliban's political office and oversaw the signing of the withdrawal agreement with the Americans. 

- Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Haqqani Network -

 The son of the famed commander from the anti-Soviet jihad, Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Sirajuddin doubles as both the deputy leader of the Taliban movement while also heading the powerful Haqqani network. 

The Haqqani Network is a US-designated terror group that has long been viewed as one of the most dangerous factions fighting Afghan and US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan during the past two decades.

The group is infamous for its use of suicide bombers and is believed to have orchestrated some of the most high-profile attacks in Kabul over the years. 

The network has also been accused of assassinating top Afghan officials and holding kidnapped Western citizens for ransom -- including US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, released in 2014.

Known for their independence, fighting acumen, and savvy business dealings, the Haqqanis are believed to oversee operations in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, while holding considerable sway over the Taliban's leadership council. 

- Mullah Yaqoob, the scion -

The son of the Taliban's founder Mullah Omar.

Mullah Yaqoob heads the group's powerful military commission, which oversees a vast network of field commanders charged with executing the insurgency's strategic operations in the war.  

His lineage and ties to his father -- who enjoyed a cult-like status as the Taliban's leader -- serves as a potent symbol and makes him a unifying figure over a sprawling movement. 

However speculation remains rife about Yaqoob’s exact role within the movement, with some analysts arguing that his appointment to the role in 2020 was merely cosmetic. 

84 Afghan soldiers cross border into Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan said Sunday that 84 Afghan soldiers crossed its border fleeing the Taliban as the militant group seized Afghanistan's fourth-largest city in its blistering takeover of the country. 

Tashkent said it had offered humanitarian assistance to the soldiers.

The Central Asian country said border troops had arrested the "violators of the state border" and that authorities held "talks with the Afghan side" about their return to Afghanistan in a foreign ministry statement.  

Russia's TASS news agency quoted the ministry's spokesman Yusup Kabulzhanov as confirming that the negotiations over the refugees' return were being held with both Afghanistan's official government and the Taliban.

Uzbekistan provided the detained Afghan soldiers with food, temporary accommodation and medical treatment, the Uzbek foreign ministry said in its statement.

It also noted "an accumulation of military personnel of the Afghan government forces" on the Afghan side of the bridge at the Termez-Hairatan border crossing. 

"Measures are being taken to provide humanitarian assistance to these persons," the statement said without offering details. 

The Taliban on Saturday seized the northern stronghold Mazar-i-Sharif, which is a short drive from Uzbekistan and an important hub for trade with the Central Asian nation.

Warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, who had led a militia resistance in the city to support government forces, had fled to Uzbekistan, an aide to Noor said.

Noor later tweeted that they had been betrayed by the military and were in a "safe place", adding: "I have a lot of untold stories that I will share in due course."

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had visited Mazar-i-Sharif just three days earlier. 

With the group's claim to capture Jalalabad confirmed by residents early on Sunday, Kabul is now the only major city under Afghan government control and is effectively surrounded by the Taliban

Afghan forces have retreated over the country's borders with Central Asian states Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on several occasions since the Taliban began a sweeping advance amid the pullout of US forces in May.