KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans rushed onto the tarmac of the capital’s airport on Monday as thousands tried to flee the country after the Taliban seized power with stunning speed. Some clung to the side of a U.S. military transport plane before takeoff, in a widely shared video that captured the sense of desperation as America’s 20-year war comes to a chaotic end.
The Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, bringing an end to a two-decade campaign in which the U.S. and its allies had tried to transform Afghanistan. The country’s Western-trained security forces collapsed or fled in the face of an insurgent offensive that tore through the country in just over a week, ahead of the planned withdrawal of the last American troops at the end of the month.
In the capital, a tense calm set in, with most people hiding in their homes as the Taliban deployed fighters at major intersections. There were scattered reports of looting and armed men knocking on doors and gates, and the streets were eerily quiet for a city of 5 million people usually jammed with traffic. Fighters could be seen searching vehicles at one of the city’s main squares.
Many fear chaos, after the Taliban freed thousands of prisoners and the police simply melted away, or a return to the kind of brutal rule the Taliban imposed when they were last in power. Residents raced to Kabul’s international airport, where the “civilian side” was closed until further notice, according to Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority. The U.S. military and other Western forces continued to organize evacuations.
Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people running across the tarmac as U.S. troops fired warning shots in the air. One showed a crowd pushing and shoving its way up a staircase, trying to board a plane, with some people hanging off the railings.
In another video, hundreds of people could be seen running alongside a U.S. Air Force transport plane as it moved down a runway. Some clung to the side of the jet just before takeoff. That raised questions about how much longer aircraft would be able to safely take off and land. The Pentagon declined to comment on the chaos at the airport.
Shafi Arifi, who had a ticket to travel to Uzbekistan on Sunday, was unable to board her plane because it was packed with people who had raced across the tarmac and climbed aboard, with no police or airport staff in sight.
“There was no room for us to stand,” said the 24-year-old. “Children were crying, women were shouting, young and old men were so angry and upset, no one could hear each other. There was no oxygen to breathe.”
After another woman fainted and was carried off the plane, Arifi gave up and went back home.
The U.S. Embassy has been evacuated and the American flag lowered, with diplomats relocating to the airport to aid with the evacuation. Other Western countries have also closed their missions and are flying out staff and nationals.
Afghans are also trying to leave through land border crossings, all of which are now controlled by the Taliban. Rakhmatula Kuyash, 30, was one of the few people with a visa allowing him to cross into Uzbekistan on Sunday. He said his children and relatives had to stay behind.
“I’m lost and I don’t know what to do. I left everything behind,” he said.
A senior U.S. official said “it’s heartbreaking” to see what’s happening in Kabul, but that President Joe Biden “stands by” his decision to pull out because he didn’t want the war there — already the longest in U.S. history — to enter a third decade.
In interviews with U.S. television networks, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan blamed the Afghan military for the Taliban’s rapid takeover, saying it lacked the will to fight.
The ease with which the Taliban took control goes beyond military prowess, however, the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor wrote.
“The speed of the Taliban’s final advance suggests less military dominance than effective political insurgency coupled with an incohesive Afghan political system and security force struggling with flagging morale,” it said.
The lightning Taliban offensive through the country appears to have stunned American officials. Just days before the insurgents entered Kabul with little if any resistance, a U.S. military assessment predicted it could take months for the capital to fall.
The rout threatened to erase 20 years of Western efforts to remake Afghanistan that saw more than 3,500 U.S. and allied troops killed as well as tens of thousands of Afghans. The initial invasion drove the Taliban from power and scattered al-Qaida, which had planned the 9/11 attacks while being sheltered in Afghanistan. Many had hoped the Western-backed Afghan government would usher in a new era of peace and respect for human rights.
As the U.S. lost focus on Afghanistan during the Iraq war, the Taliban eventually regrouped. The militants captured much of the Afghan countryside in recent years and then swept into cities as U.S. forces prepared to withdraw ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline.
Under the Taliban, which ruled in accordance with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, women were largely confined to their homes and suspected criminals faced amputation or public execution. The insurgents have sought to project greater moderation in recent years, but many Afghans remain skeptical.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, tweeted that fighters had been instructed to protect “life, property and honor,” and the group has also said it will stay out of the upscale diplomatic quarter housing the U.S. Embassy complex.
Meanwhile, the head of U.S. Central Command met face-to-face with senior Taliban leaders in Qatar and won their agreement to establish an arrangement under which evacuation operations at the airport can continue without interference, a U.S. defense official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks not yet announced publicly.
But some worried those promises are hollow. On Monday, Nillan, a 27-year-old resident of Kabul, said she didn’t see a single woman out on the streets during a 15-minute drive, “only men and boys.”
“It feels like time has stopped. Everything’s changed,” she told The Associated Press. She said even the most independent Afghan women now have to worry about the simplest things, such as how to get groceries in the absence of a male escort.
Nillan, who spoke on condition that she only be identified by her first name out of fear for her safety, said the Taliban ran TV ads urging people to return to work, without mentioning women.
“We don’t know what to do, we don’t know if we still have jobs,” she said. “It feels like our life and our future has ended.”