Afghan president in urgent talks as Taleban captures major town near Kabul

A Taleban flag flying above the main city square in Pul-e-Khumri on Aug 11, after the militant group captured the city.
A Taleban flag flying above the main city square in Pul-e-Khumri on Aug 11, after the militant group captured the city.PHOTO: AFP

KABUL (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani held urgent talks with local leaders and international partners on Saturday (Aug 14) as Taleban rebels pushed closer to Kabul, capturing a town south of the capital that is one of the gateways to the city.

The United States and Britain rushed in troops to help evacuate their embassies after the militants captured town after town as US and other foreign forces that have backed the government withdrew.

Most foreign troops have already left and the remainder are set to exit by Aug 31, as US President Joe Biden follows through on former president Donald Trump's promise to wind down America's longest war.

Many Afghans have fled from the provinces to the capital, driven out by fighting and fearful of a return to hardline Islamist rule, as resistance from Afghan government forces crumbles.

Mr Ghani expressed concern about the condition of the thousands of internal refugees who have fled to the safety of the national capital over the last few weeks. 

The crisis threatens to spill outside the country's borders and send waves of refugees to its neighbours and as far afield as Europe.

“As your President, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people,” Mr Ghani said in a brief televised address, adding that he was consulting government, elders, politicians and international leaders.

He gave no sign of responding to a Taleban demand that he resign as a condition for any talks on a ceasefire and a political settlement, saying his priority remained the consolidation of the country’s security and defence forces.

“Serious measures are being taken in this regard,” he said, without elaborating.

Qatar, which has been hosting so-far inconclusive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taleban, said on Saturday it had urged the insurgents to cease fire during a meeting with their representatives on Saturday.

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani met the head of the Taleban’s political bureau, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to follow up on peace talks hosted by the Gulf country, the Qatari foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.

“The foreign minister urged the Taleban at the meeting to let up the escalation and to cease fire,” it said.

Envoys from the United States, China, Pakistan, the United Nations, the European Union and others met Taleban representatives and Afghan government officials on Thursday in Doha.

The statement issued following that meeting reaffirmed that foreign capitals would not recognise any government in Afghanistan “imposed through the use of military force”.

Earlier the Taleban, facing little resistance, took Pul-e-Alam, capital of Logar province and 70km south of Kabul, according to a local provincial council member, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The town is a staging post for a potential assault on Kabul.

Its capture came a day after the insurgents took the country’s second- and third-biggest cities. The Taleban says it is close to capturing Maidan Shahr, another town close to Kabul.

An Afghan government official confirmed on Friday that Kandahar, the biggest city in the south, was under Taleban control as US-led international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.

The US-led invasion, which ousted the Taleban from power, was launched after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

Herat in the west, near the border with Iran, also fell to the group.

Kandahar’s loss was a heavy blow to the government. It is the heartland of the Taleban - ethnic Pashtun fighters who emerged in 1994 amid the chaos of civil war. It is also close to the town of Spin Boldak, one of the two main entry points into Pakistan and a major source of tax revenues.

Embassy evacuations

American troops have begun flying in to Kabul to help in the evacuation of embassy personnel and other civilians, a US official said on condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon has said two battalions of Marines and an infantry battalion will arrive in Kabul by Sunday evening, involving about 3,000 troops.

An infantry brigade combat team will move to Kuwait to act as a quick reaction force for security in Kabul if needed.

The Czech Republic said it was evacuating its two diplomats on Saturday and Italy said it would evacuate its embassy if necessary.

Some embassies have begun to burn sensitive material ahead of evacuating, diplomats said.

Many people in the capital were stocking up on rice and other food as well as first aid, residents said.

Visa applications at embassies were running in the tens of thousands, officials said, and Washington was asking countries to temporarily house Afghans who worked for the US government.

A US defence official said before the fall of Pul-e-Alam that there was concern that the Taleban could make a move on Kabul within days.

Refugee crisis

The explosion in fighting has raised fears of a refugee crisis and a rollback of gains in human rights, especially for women. Some 400,000 civilians have been forced from their homes this year, 250,000 of them since May, a UN official said.

Canada said it would resettle more than 20,000 vulnerable Afghans including women leaders, human rights workers and reporters to protect them from Taleban reprisals.

Germany’s conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, Armin Laschet, on Saturday called on the foreign ministry to quickly authorise the army to assist in the departure of local helpers from Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, from Merkel’s coalition partner, the SPD, said on Friday that Germany would bring forward charter flights originally planned for the end of August to evacuate non-essential embassy staff in Kabul as well as Afghan helpers.

“The Bundeswehr have to save these people. That’s the moral obligation after everything they have done for us,” Mr Laschet said at an event in the city of Giessen.

“We can’t watch them any longer being threatened by the Taleban and fundamentalists.”

Of Afghanistan’s major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, in addition to Kabul.

The speed of the Taleban’s gains has led to recriminations over the US withdrawal, which was negotiated last year under Mr Biden's administration’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.

Mr Biden said this week he did not regret his decision to follow through with the withdrawal.

He noted Washington has spent more than US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion) and lost thousands of troops over two decades, and called on Afghanistan’s army and leaders to step up.