As pressure mounted on the Biden administration to do more to evacuate thousands of Afghan allies fearing for their lives, the Taliban on Tuesday sought to present themselves to the world as responsible stewards of Afghanistan.
But with both the Biden administration and the Taliban promising to offer protection, for millions of Afghans the future promised only more uncertainty. While the U.S. military on Tuesday restored order within Kabul’s international airport, it was unclear whether Afghans could make it there.
Despite assurances of safe passage, the Taliban are not only known to operate with brutality, but also have a dismal history of managing a vast nation largely dependent on foreign aid.
The group’s leaders took to Twitter, appeared on international cable networks and held a news conference — all to provide assurances that they would not engage in systemic retribution and to offer vague reassurances to women. “Give us time,” a spokesman said at the news conference, in Kabul.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Taliban’s Military Commission, Mullah Yaqoub, reiterated orders that fighters in Kabul should not enter people’s homes or seize property. “No one is allowed to enter anyone’s house, particularly in Kabul, where we have entered recently and the situation is new,” he said.
But he coupled that with a warning, saying that the Taliban would be collecting weapons and government property in an organized manner and that looting state property was a betrayal of the country.
“If anyone is caught, they will be dealt with,” he said.
There were other signals that the Taliban are now seeking to move from being insurgents to the new legal authority in the nation.
Mullah Baradar, the chief of the Taliban’s political office, arrived in the southern city of Kandahar on Tuesday, returning to Afghanistan for what is believed to be the first time in a decade.
A Taliban delegation also was in Kabul on Tuesday for discussions with political leaders to negotiate the formation of an interim government, according to Maulvi Qalamuddin, a former Taliban minister who reconciled with the Afghan government long ago.
The delegation, led by Amir Khan Muttaqi, who served as the minister of higher education in the previous Taliban government, met with a coordinating council led by former President Hamid Karzai. More senior Taliban leaders are scheduled to arrive in Kabul on Wednesday and will most likely announce a new government, he said.
“They have been in the city for the last three days, and if the Taliban had wanted a one-sided government, they would have already declared an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan yesterday in the presidential palace,” he said. “They would have announced their cabinet, But no. In fact, they were waiting for this.”
Still, there were also ominous signs that the Taliban’s promises did not match the situation on the ground.
Taliban fighters spread out across the streets of Kabul, the capital, riding motorbikes and driving police vehicles and Humvees that had been seized from government security forces. Armed fighters occupied Parliament, and some visited the homes of government officials, confiscating possessions and vehicles, while others made a show of directing traffic
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said on Monday that his organization was “receiving chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights” throughout the country. “I am particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan,” he said at an emergency meeting of the Security Council.
In some areas of Afghanistan, women have been told not to leave home without being accompanied by a male relative, and girls’ schools have been closed.
The United Nations children’s organization, UNICEF, said that the Taliban had appointed coordinators in various parts of the country to act as contact points for humanitarian groups. UNICEF representatives met with a health commissioner in Herat on Monday and said he had requested that female employees of the health department return to work.
But the agency reported getting mixed messages on education for girls: In some areas, local Taliban authorities said they were awaiting guidance from leaders, and in other areas they said they wanted schools for girls and for boys up and running.
“We are cautiously optimistic on moving forward,” Mustapha Ben Messaoud, UNICEF’s chief of operations in Kabul, said via video link.
The Afghan government’s collapse has left the Taliban in control of not only security, but also basic services in a country already facing a drought that has left a third of its 38 million people in danger of running out of food.
While there have been no confirmed reports of widespread reprisal killings, many people have sheltered in their homes.
Hoping to get people back to essential jobs, the Taliban issued a “general amnesty” on Tuesday for all government officials, saying that they could return to work with “full confidence.”
But memories of Taliban rule are deeply ingrained.
They became known for brutality, carrying out executions by stoning in a soccer stadium and compelling men to pray five times a day under the threat of the lash. Television, videos and music were banned.
Women in particular suffered gravely, with girls’ education banned and women largely excluded from public life. There were only an estimated 900,000 students in 2001, and none of them were girls, according to USAID. Two decades later, before the Taliban’s recent takeover, that number had increased to 9.5 million students in the country, 39 percent of whom are girls.
Still, one of Afghanistan’s major media outlets, ToloNews, featured female anchors onscreen on Tuesday for the first time since the Taliban takeover.
For nearly two decades, Zabihullah Mujahid was the voice of the Taliban, but only on Tuesday did the world get its first look at his face, when he appeared before reporters in a jam-packed Kabul briefing room to discuss what the insurgents plan to do with their newly won country.
Mr. Mujahid appeared at pains to strike a conciliatory tone, repeating earlier Taliban assurances that they planned no vendetta against those who had opposed them in Afghanistan, even those who had worked with the American and NATO military forces.
The news conference was held days after the insurgents had marched into Kabul, the capital, and as Afghans — and the world — braced to see if they planned a brutal reprise of their earlier years in power. With Western powers and Afghans who helped them during the United States’ 20-year war against the Taliban racing to get out of the country, the insurgents have been trying to recast themselves in a less menacing light.
Pressed by reporters Tuesday about what would happen next, Mr. Mujahid shied away from detail, saying “serious talks” were now underway about the shape of a new government.
“Give us time,” Mr. Mujahid asked.
He also offered assurances to Afghanistan’s women, who were brutally repressed the last time the Taliban controlled the country, before the group was toppled by U.S. forces in 2001.
“We assure that there will be no violence against women,” he said, “no prejudice against women will be allowed, but the Islamic values are our framework.”
Again, the language was vague. Women, Mr. Mujahid said, will be active in society, allowed to work and study — but “within the bounds of Islamic law.”
But already there have been reports of women being ordered out of their offices and told to fully cover when out in public, as well as the Taliban taking away property. And the Taliban are also accused of a large number of revenge killings in the last stretch of the fighting, particularly in the southern province of Kandahar.
In Kabul on Tuesday, on the third day of the Taliban’s return, life appeared to be returning to some semblance of normalcy. Shops were opening and traffic was bustling again, though cars were occasionally stopped at checkpoints by ragtag fighters.
As more women appeared on the streets in some neighborhoods, there seemed little change in the way they dressed — just a bit more modesty, with baggier robes and tighter scarfs — and there was no sign that the Taliban was moving to reimpose the burqa, as they did in the 1990s. On television, female journalists could be seen reporting from the streets and interviewing Taliban members in the studio. Broadcasters seemed to be trading carefully when it came to music, banned under the previous Taliban regime, airing songs with a devotional leaning.
The Taliban news conference Tuesday was held in the same room that the Afghan government once used to brief the media. As Mr. Mujahid took his seat in front of a roomful of reporters, the setting appeared identical. The same microphones, the same furniture, the same drapes. Only the flag was different; the white flag of the Taliban had replaced the Afghan one.
Of course, the man doing the talking had also changed.
“We want a strong Islamic system,” Mr. Mujahid said.
But even on the question of whether they want the return of the Islamic Emirate — that is what their oppressive system was called in the 1990s — Mr. Mujahid was noncommittal. What the shape off the government will be, and what it is to be called, will be decided in ongoing discussions, he said.
Mr. Mujahid was asked about the Taliban’s long campaign of bombings, which took untold civilian lives.
“Do you think the people of Afghanistan will forgive you?” one Afghan reporter asked.
The Taliban spokesman said it had been a time of war — “our families also suffered,” he said — but allowed that the civilian deaths were “unfortunate.”
Mr. Mujahid was also asked about the man who had sat in his very seat only a week ago, a government spokesman assassinated by the Taliban.
He offered the same answer: It was war.
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Tuesday that evacuation operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport were accelerating, with additional American troops flowing in and hundreds of passengers flying out.
Overnight, nine Air Force C-17 transport planes brought in 1,000 troops, with the expectation that more than 4,000 troops would be at the airport by day’s end, Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the military’s Joint Staff told reporters Tuesday morning.
Seven C-17s left Kabul overnight carrying about 700 American citizens, citizens of other foreign countries, and Afghans who had helped the American war effort, as well as their family members, General Taylor said. About 1,400 people have been evacuated since the operation began, he said.
A day after massive crowds spilled onto the airfield, delaying flights for hours, the Pentagon’s goal over the next day or two is to conduct up to one flight per hour. Officials hope to fly out between 5,000 and 9,000 passengers a day, weather and security conditions permitting.
“We’ll do as much as we can, as long as we can,” John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.
So far, the Taliban have not attacked or otherwise interfered with the evacuation at the airport, General Taylor said. The Pentagon warned the Taliban on Monday that any hostile action would be met with a swift and forceful military response.
Mr. Kirby said that American commanders at the airport were in communication with Taliban commanders outside the airport, but he would not characterize the discussions.
Military officials sidestepped questions about how the U.S. government would provide safe passage to the airport for the several thousand Americans believed to still be in Kabul, and for the tens of thousands of Afghans whom the Biden administration has promised to airlift to safety either in the United States or third countries.
But the danger was made clear in a State Department communication sent to American citizens in Afghanistan on Tuesday that directed them to to head toward the airport. It warned that the U.S. could not guarantee their safety.
Mr. Kirby said the White House’s deadline for completing the herculean feat of evacuating tens of thousands of people from country was Aug. 31. He would not comment on what would happened if the mission was not accomplished by that date.
Yet most Afghan civilians are left with little immediate hope of escaping the return of an Islamist militant group that once ruled Afghanistan with terror and brutality.
Taliban fighters swept into Kabul, the capital, on Sunday, capping a stunning march across Afghanistan in the closing moments of the United States’ 20-year military mission in the country.
Thousands of Afghans flocked to Kabul’s airport, and on Monday they rushed the boarding gates, mobbed the runways, clambered atop the wings of jets and even tried to cling to the fuselage of departing U.S. military planes.
At least half a dozen Afghans were killed in the chaos, some falling from the skies as they lost their grasp, and at least two shot by American soldiers trying to contain the surging crowds.
The images evoked America’s frantic departure from Vietnam, encapsulating Afghanistan’s breathtaking collapse in the wake of American abandonment.
Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday blistered President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and pledged to investigate the administration’s “policy execution and intelligence failures.”
In a scathing statement, warning that the nation’s “reputation is on the line,” Mr. Menendez said he would “seek a full accounting” of how the Biden administration failed to grasp the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal.
“Congress was told repeatedly that the Afghan Defense and Security Forces were up to the task, that it had the troops, equipment and willingness to fight,” Mr. Menendez said. “To see this army dissolve so quickly after billions of dollars in U.S. support is astounding. The American and Afghan people clearly have not been told the truth.”
Top White House officials defended the president’s decision-making on Tuesday, a day after Mr. Biden insisted that withdrawing the United States from its 20-year conflict in Afghanistan was the right thing to do even in the face of the chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters that the president was well aware of the risks — including the need for a rapid evacuation of personnel — involved in ending the American presence in Afghanistan. But he said Mr. Biden thought the risks of continuing to fight in the country were too great.
“What has unfolded over the past month has proven decisively that it would have taken a significant American troop presence multiple times greater than what President Biden was handed to stop the Taliban onslaught,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And we would have taken casualties. American men and women would have been fighting and dying once again in Afghanistan.”
Mr. Sullivan expressed sadness over the likely plight of women and girls in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. And he said the Taliban are certain to benefit from some of the advanced weaponry that the United States gave to the Afghan forces and is now in Taliban hands.
But he said Mr. Biden and his aides understood — and planned for — the implications of the decision to leave Afghanistan.
“We were cleareyed going in when we made this decision, that it was possible that the Taliban would end up in control of Afghanistan,” Mr. Sullivan said, noting that the administration urged Americans for weeks to leave Afghanistan because of the dangers.
But those explanations have not been enough for the president’s critics, even those in his own party.
Mr. Menendez’s vow to hold a president of his own party to account — with the gavel Mr. Biden used to wield in the Foreign Relations Committee — could prove a major headache for administration officials. And it came after other Democratic congressional leaders, including Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said they would also seek answers on what went wrong.
Asked to respond to the criticism, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, acknowledged on Tuesday that the Taliban takeover “did happen more rapidly than anyone anticipated — and I think that counts for members of Congress and people who are on the ground in Afghanistan.”
“It did not have to end this way,” Ajmal Ahmady, the acting governor of Afghanistan’s cental bank, said on Twitter this week, describing the chaos in Kabul as he fled the country.
In a series of posts on Monday, Mr. Ahmady detailed how the central bank tried to respond to turbulence in Afghanistan’s currency market late last week amid the swift takeover of the country by the Taliban, and his disappointment that the country’s leadership was fleeing without any sort of transition plan.
Top figures in President Ashraf Ghani’s government were inexperienced, he wrote, and it was Mr. Ghani’s “failure that he never recognized such weaknesses.”
Mr. Ahmady said the collapse of the government was “so swift and complete” that it was “disorienting and difficult to comprehend.”
The Afghan currency, the afghani, slumped more than 6 percent on Tuesday to a record low of 86 to the U.S. dollar, according to Bloomberg data.
Mr. Ahmady was appointed the central bank’s acting governor in June 2020. Before that, he served as a senior adviser to the president for banking and financial affairs, as well as other ministerial positions. Mr. Ahmady was educated in the United States, at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Harvard Business School.
Afghan lawmakers rejected making Mr. Ahmady the permanent central bank chief in December, citing reasons including insufficient fluency in the country’s national languages, Bloomberg reported.
As a temporary caretaker of the economy, Mr. Ahmady focused on price stability, strengthening the financial sector and digitizing payments. The International Monetary Fund forecast the Afghan economy — which relies heavily on international aid — to rebound 4 percent this year after shrinking in 2020, but in June warned that it was facing “formidable challenges” because of the pandemic and “precarious security situation.”
Last week, “currency volatility and other indicators had worsened” before the Afghan government fell, he said, but the central bank had been able to stabilize the economy “relatively well.”
“Then came last Thursday.”
Mr. Ahmady described how he had attended his normal meetings that morning, but by the time he returned home, major cities including Ghazni and Herat were under Taliban control. On Friday, he said, he received a call saying that the central bank would get no further shipments of U.S. dollars, and on Saturday, the bank supplied less currency to the markets, a move that “further increased panic,” he said.
“I held meetings on Saturday to reassure banks and money exchangers to calm them down,” Mr. Ahmady wrote. “I can’t believe that was one day before Kabul fell.”
On Saturday night, he said, he bought tickets to leave the country on Monday “as a precaution.” But on Sunday, he left the central bank and went to the airport, where he saw Afghan politicians.
“I secured a Kam Air flight Sunday 7pm,” he said, referring to an international airline based in Kabul. “Then the floor fell: the President had already left.”
Civil servants and the military immediately left their positions as word of Mr. Ghani’s departure spread, and hundreds of people raced to board an outbound plane. “The plane had no fuel or pilot. We all hoped it would depart,” he wrote.
He then disembarked from the aircraft, and amid of rush of people he ended up on a military plane. Mr. Ahmady did not say who owned the plane he was on or where it was going.
“It did not have to end this way,” he wrote. “I am disgusted by the lack of any planning by Afghan leadership. Saw at airport them leave without informing others. I asked the palace if there was an evacuation plan/charter flights. After 7 years of service, I was met with silence.”
BRUSSELS — The NATO alliance and European Union foreign ministers held separate emergency meetings on Tuesday to discuss how best to coordinate the evacuation of their citizens and local Afghan employees from Kabul.
With the United States, Turkey, Britain and France all having sent in troops to take control of the main international airport in Kabul, evacuation flights were gathering pace. The Pentagon suggested that at least one flight would take off every hour until at least the end of the month.
European leaders consulted on the evacuation. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, spoke with the leaders of France, Britain and Italy, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. They agreed to cooperate and coordinate on the ground, Ms. Merkel’s spokesman said.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said that some 800 NATO civilian personnel remained in Afghanistan, working on air-traffic control, fuel supplies and communications.
Mr. Stoltenberg described conditions as “extremely serious and unpredictable,” and repeated that all 30 NATO countries had agreed with the United States about ending their military involvement there.
The sudden collapse of the Afghan military and government was a surprise, Mr. Stoltenberg conceded, but like President Biden, he blamed Afghanistan’s leaders.
“Ultimately, the Afghan political leadership failed to stand up to the Taliban and to achieve the peaceful solution that Afghans desperately wanted,” he said. “This failure of Afghan leadership led to the tragedy we are witnessing today.”
He called on the Taliban to allow evacuation flights to leave unhindered and to ensure that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda could not flourish again. “Those now taking power have the responsibility to ensure that international terrorists do not regain a foothold,” he said. “We have the capabilities to strike terrorist groups from a distance if we see that terrorist groups again try to establish themselves and plan, organize attacks against NATO allies and their countries.”
The European Union foreign ministers discussed the potential for a new wave of migrants and asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Next to Syrians, Afghans are the largest group seeking asylum in Europe. According to some E.U. estimates, around 570,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in Europe since 2015.
Asylum applications by Afghan nationals have climbed by a third since February, as it became clear that NATO troops were leaving. More than 4,648 applications were lodged in May, according to the European Union, and in the past, nearly 60 percent of them have been successful.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the E.U. foreign policy chief, said that Spain had agreed to create a hub for processing Afghans evacuated from the country, including about 400 Afghans and family members of Afghans who worked directly for the European Union there. He thanked the Italians for providing transport and the French for providing security. “This is work in progress,” he said, with those Afghans still sheltering at home.
Europeans will talk to authorities in Kabul in an effort to ensure that there is “no humanitarian and migratory crisis,” Mr. Borrell said, and will work to support countries neighboring Afghanistan and other countries through which refugees might move. Europeans, he said, want “to ensure no wide-scale migratory move toward Europe.” But Europeans would also accept refugees like Afghan journalists and workers in civil society who fear retribution, he said.
In a statement, the foreign ministers called on the Taliban to respect human rights and said that future relations would depend upon it. “The protection and promotion of all human rights, in particular those of women and girls, must be an integral part of these efforts and women should be supported and able to contribute fully to this process,” they said.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said on Monday that France, Germany and other European partners would work swiftly on a “robust response” to any new influx of people from Afghanistan. “Europe cannot alone assume the consequences,” he said.
In the two decades since the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban, girls and women in Afghanistan have joined the military and police forces, held political office, competed in the Olympics and scaled the heights of engineering on robotics teams — things that once seemed unimaginable under the Taliban. The United States also invested more than $780 million to encourage women’s rights.
Now, a central question is: Will the Taliban once again trample over women’s rights with the same velocity they captured the country?
In recent days, the Taliban have aimed to present a more moderate face to the world and help tame the fear gripping Afghanistan. They have even encouraged women to return to work and to take part in the government.
Yet amid worries of running afoul of local Taliban officials, many women have remained shuttered at home. Kabul residents have been tearing down advertisements showing women without head scarves in recent days. In some areas of Afghanistan, women have been told not to leave home without being accompanied by a male relative, and girls’ schools have been closed.
President George W. Bush, who ordered the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power, said this week that he felt “deep sadness” at the group’s takeover of Afghanistan and defended his decision to launch what would become America’s longest war.
“Our hearts are heavy for both the Afghan people who have suffered so much and for the Americans and NATO allies who have sacrificed so much,” the former president and his wife, Laura Bush, wrote in a letter released on Monday.
Mr. Bush was in his first year in office, with little experience in foreign affairs, when the Sept. 11 attacks prompted him to deploy troops to Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban government that had sheltered the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
But then Mr. Bush turned his focus to invading Iraq, the costly military campaign that would come to define his presidency, leaving the Afghanistan mission to drag on with ill-defined goals and little oversight.
In his letter, Mr. Bush addressed U.S. troops who had served in Afghanistan, including thousands who did multiple tours, arguing that he had not sent them to war in vain.
“You took out a brutal enemy and denied Al Qaeda a safe haven while building schools, sending supplies and providing medical care,” he said. “You kept America safe from further terror attacks, provided two decades of security and opportunity for millions and made America proud.”
Many of the gains ushered in by the two-decade U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan — more opportunities for women, more girls enrolled in school, a freer news media environment — could be at risk under the Taliban.
The hard-line Islamist group banned popular music and carried out public executions when it ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, and as an insurgent movement it was known for suicide bombings that killed thousands of civilians and members of ethnic and religious minorities.
Mr. Bush called on the Biden administration to take in more Afghan refugees and speed the process of evacuating Afghans and U.S. citizens threatened by the Taliban. He urged the U.S. government to “cut the red tape.”
“We have the responsibility and the resources to secure safe passage for them now, without bureaucratic delay,” he said.
India’s government said on Tuesday that it would prioritize taking in Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan — a move that drew comparisons to a contentious 2019 citizenship law, enacted under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that discriminates against Muslims.
The country’s home ministry said it would introduce “emergency visas” to allow Afghans to stay in India for six months. It did not say whether Muslims, who make up the majority of those seeking to leave Afghanistan as the Taliban take over, would also be considered.
“We are in constant touch with the Sikh and Hindu community leaders in Kabul,” S. Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, said on Twitter. “Their welfare will get our priority attention.”
That distinction prompted condemnation from some corners.
“Ashamed that the government of India response now is to look at desperate Afghan refugees not as humans fleeing persecution and sure death, but from the view of whether or not they’re Muslim,” Kavita Krishnan, an opposition politician, said on Twitter.
India also drew criticism after numerous seats were left empty on an Air Force flight on Tuesday that evacuated Indian citizens and officials from the country’s embassy in Kabul.
Officials in New Delhi have indicated that the country will “stand by” the Afghans who worked closely with the Indian government and its mission in Afghanistan. It is not clear whether their religious status would be a factor in that process.
A spokesman for the ministry of external affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
India has previously granted visas of a longer duration to Afghans fleeing persecution, irrespective of their religion. Many Afghans migrated to India when the Taliban took over about two decades ago. Some have settled in New Delhi, where a shopping district popularly named “Little Kabul” comes alive every evening with stalls selling traditional food.
U.S. and Afghan officials say that India’s archrival, Pakistan, has permitted free movement to Taliban leaders, and that the country continues to serve as a haven where fighters and their families can receive medical care.
But experts say that India is cautiously navigating its relationship with Afghanistan’s new leaders. Indian diplomats recently made efforts to engage with the Taliban as part of the U.S.-led talks in Doha, Qatar.
Some in India have urged their government to engage directly with the Taliban. Vivek Katju, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, told The Wire news outlet last week that the country had become a “bystander” in Afghanistan and that India’s leaders did not know “which way to turn” anymore.
“Engagement with the Taliban should happen,” Mr. Katju said in a telephone interview with The New York Times on Tuesday. “The mechanics of the engagement should be such that it should be open and direct.”
For its part, Pakistan’s leadership has stopped short of hailing the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
“When you adopt someone’s culture, you believe it to be superior and you end up becoming a slave to it,” Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Monday in a veiled reference to the United States and Western culture. “In Afghanistan, they have broken the shackles of slavery,” Mr. Khan said at an appearance in Islamabad, “but the slavery of the mind does not break away.”
Western technocrat. Would-be populist. Wartime president. Ashraf Ghani tried to inhabit many roles during his years as Afghanistan’s president.
But after fleeing the Taliban’s advance into Kabul this weekend, Mr. Ghani — wherever he is — is stepping into a far less welcome role: that of a failed leader whose hasty escape from Kabul scuttled negotiations to ensure a smooth transition of power to the Taliban and left his own people to deal with the deadly chaos and frightening uncertainty under the country’s once and future rulers.
It remains unclear where Mr. Ghani is and where he will end up living. Close aides could not be reached by telephone, and some reports suggested that he had gone to neighboring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan or perhaps Oman. There was talk that Saudi Arabia had agreed to give him asylum, and rumors that he had been accompanied by as many as 200 aides, ministers and members of Parliament.
There were also reports that Mr. Ghani had fled with piles of cash, and questions about whether the United States had played any role in his departure.
It was an ignominious turn for Mr. Ghani, a World Bank-trained technocrat who holds a doctorate from Columbia University and, as he often reminds people, wrote a book titled “Fixing Failed States.”
Instead of fixing Afghanistan during his nearly seven years in power, Mr. Ghani fled much the way he governed: isolated from all but a handful of advisers who are said to have departed with him.
The fallout was swift as what semblance of civil government that was left in Kabul melted away and thousands of Afghans stormed through Kabul’s international airport — the city’s sole connection to the outside world — on Monday, desperate to find a way out. Unlike Mr. Ghani, most of them had no chance of getting out, and several people died in the chaos.
Mr. Ghani, 72, defended his decision to bolt in a social media post late on Sunday, writing, “If I had stayed, countless of my countrymen would be martyred and Kabul would face destruction.”
Others condemned his flight as a desperate act of self-preservation by a man whose failures paved the way for the Taliban’s return nearly 20 years to the month after the American-led invasion that led to their ouster following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“He will be known as the Benedict Arnold of Afghanistan,” said Saad Mohseni, who owns Tolo TV, one of Afghanistan’s most popular television stations. “People will be spitting on his grave for another 100 years.”
Mr. Mohseni was part of a last-ditch effort to save Kabul from a violent and bloody takeover by the Taliban, working with former President Hamid Karzai and others to negotiate an interim arrangement that would give the Taliban a week or two to take the reins of Afghanistan’s government.
The effort collapsed once word got out that Mr. Ghani had fled, whereupon the Taliban began moving into Kabul in force. Some were even pictured sitting at the same desk from which Mr. Ghani had only days earlier tried to rally his faltering military to resist the Taliban.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is making a flurry of calls to his overseas counterparts, an apparent effort to defend the U.S. military withdrawal that has sent Afghanistan sliding back into chaos.
Mr. Blinken spoke to foreign ministers from nations including Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey on Monday amid a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan that threatens to undo 20 years of American engagement in the country and could embolden the United States’ regional rivals.
The State Department offered few details of the call between Mr. Blinken and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, other than to say that the two had discussed security in Afghanistan and their respective efforts to get their citizens to safety.
But the Chinese government took the opportunity to criticize the United States. Its foreign ministry said in a statement that Mr. Yi had told Mr. Blinken that the hasty U.S. withdrawal had “a serious negative impact” in Afghanistan. Mr. Yi also reiterated a standard Chinese government talking point, saying that applying foreign models to countries with different histories and cultural conditions doesn’t work, according to the statement.
In China, the situation in Afghanistan has been a source of concern about instability in the region. China shares a short, remote border with Afghanistan, which under the Taliban served as a haven for Uyghur extremists from Xinjiang, the far western Chinese region.
Some cheered the fall of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, seeing a sign of American weakness. In a caustic editorial published on Monday, The Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the ruling Communist Party, said that the Taliban’s breakneck ascent had severely undermined American credibility.
It suggested that Washington’s abandonment of Kabul should be a warning sign for Taiwan, the democratic island that is supported by the United States and that China considers a rogue territory.
The State Department said Mr. Blinken had also spoken with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov. Tass, the Russian state news agency, reported that the two had discussed the security situation in Afghanistan, the humanitarian challenges in the country and Moscow’s desire for law and order to prevail.
For some critics of the U.S. withdrawal, the collapse of Afghanistan’s democratically elected government is particularly concerning as Beijing and Moscow seek to exert their influence in the world.
In a nationwide address on Monday, President Biden argued that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was complete and that nation-building had not been the initial goal.
“Our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely,” he said.
The State Department said Mr. Blinken had also spoken with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi of Pakistan, which for decades has served as a sanctuary for the Taliban.
While some former military officials in Pakistan have applauded the Taliban’s victory, a collapse in Afghanistan carries risks for Pakistan, including a possible influx of refugees. It could also provide a lift to jihadist movements that target Pakistan’s government.
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — The U.S.-supplied Afghan Air Force took to the skies for a final flight overnight Sunday to Monday — not to attack the Taliban, as it had so many times before, but to save some of its planes and pilots from capture as the insurgents took control of Afghanistan.
At least six military aircraft left the country in a flight for safety in former Soviet states to the north. Five landed in Tajikistan, the Tajik authorities said. One plane was shot down in Uzbekistan, although its two pilots were reported to have parachuted and survived.
The departure of some of the Afghan Air Force’s planes, once the jewels of the American aid program to the Afghan military, kept them and their airmen out of Taliban hands.
It also added to the chaos in the skies in and around Afghanistan. Dozens of passenger planes that have taken off from Hamid Karzai International Airport also flew to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, neighboring countries with strong cultural ties to Afghanistan. A total of 46 airliners had departed by Monday morning, carrying asylum seekers, many of whom were employees of the airport, Tolo News, an Afghan news agency, reported.
A spokesman for the Uzbek military confirmed that it had shot down an airplane that traveled without permission into the country’s airspace. It did not specify the type of plane, but pictures of the wreckage suggested that it was a Super Tucano, a turboprop light attack aircraft made by the Brazilian company Embraer and provided by the United States to Afghanistan, according to Paul Hayes, director of Ascend, a U.K.-based aviation safety consultancy.
The Uzbek news media posted videos showing a pilot in a green flight suit, lying on the ground and receiving medical care.
In Tajikistan, the Ministry of Emergency Situations said three Afghan military airplanes and two military helicopters carrying 143 soldiers and airmen had been allowed to land after transmitting distress signals.
“Tajikistan received an SOS signal, and after this in accordance with international obligations the country decided to allow landings,” a ministry spokesman said, according to Interfax.
It was unclear what would happen to the aircraft now in Tajikistan. Afghan pilots had been targets of particular hatred by the Taliban and risked assassination.
The shoot-down in Uzbekistan and the Tajik authorities’ emphasis on their neutrality in allowing landings reflected the hard response that Central Asian nations, worried about antagonizing the Taliban, have had to fleeing Afghan soldiers.
Uzbekistan last week allowed 84 soldiers to cross a bridge to safety but left many more behind. Tajikistan in June and July allowed fleeing soldiers to enter the country but deported nearly all of them back to Afghanistan.
An Uzbek think tank close to the government has argued that what matters in Afghanistan are stability and economic development, whoever is charge.
“They say, ‘We are ready to accept any centralized force that can help Afghanistan,’” Daniel Kiselyov, the editor of Fergana, a Russian-language news site focused on Central Asia, said in a telephone interview. “If the Taliban provides that, they are willing to work with the group.”
President Biden’s unapologetic defense on Monday of his decisions in Afghanistan rallied some Democrats to his side, but the president still faces angry and increasingly public criticism from lawmakers in both parties over the chaos descending on Kabul.
After leaving the White House largely undefended, some Democratic leaders voiced tentative support after the speech.
“President Biden understands history when it comes to Afghanistan,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a member of Democratic leadership. “He made the difficult decision to not hand over this longest of American wars to a fifth president, and had he walked away from the withdraw agreement originally negotiated by President Trump, Taliban attacks on U.S. forces would have restarted and required yet another surge in U.S. troops.”
But other lawmakers were unmollified. Many moderate Democrats remained furious at the Biden administration for what they saw as terrible planning for the evacuation of Americans and their allies. Liberal Democrats who have long sought to end military engagements around the world still grumbled that the images out of Kabul were damaging their cause.
And Republicans who months ago cheered for former President Donald J. Trump’s even faster timetable to end U.S. military involvement in the nation’s longest war have shoved their previous encouragements aside to accuse Mr. Biden of humiliating the nation.
“America’s two-decade involvement in Afghanistan has had many authors,” the leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, said. “So have the strategic missteps made along the way. But as the monumental collapse our own experts predicted unfolds in Kabul today, responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of our current commander in chief.”
If Mr. Biden expected the bipartisan consensus on withdrawal from Afghanistan to protect him from criticism, he will most likely remain disappointed — at least for now.
“We didn’t need to be in this position; we didn’t need to be seeing these scenes at Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing a C-17,” said Representative Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. “We should have started this evacuation months ago.”
Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former captain in the Marine Corps, said that for months, he had been asking the administration to provide a refugee plan. “I was very explicit: ‘We need a plan. We need someone in charge,’” he said. “Honestly, we still haven’t really seen the plan.”
“They had weeks of opportunity. They had an amazing coalition of liberal and conservative lawmakers who were willing to support the administration in this effort,” Mr. Moulton, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, continued. “In my mind this was not just a national security mistake, but a political mistake, too.”
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.