A former senior official of Afghanistan’s ousted President Ashraf Ghani has detailed a vivid picture of the last weeks of Ghani’s government, including how the President and his advisers were stunned by the speed of the Taliban’s advance on the capital of Kabul.
Ghani was far from prepared for the Taliban’s arrival on the outskirts of Kabul last Saturday and fled Sunday with only the clothes he was wearing, the former senior official told CNN.
In those final hours, the official said a senior member of the Ghani administration met in Kabul with a prominent member of a group allied to both the Taliban and al Qaeda, who told him bluntly that the government must surrender.
“In the days leading up to the Taliban coming in Kabul, we had been working on a deal with the US to hand over peacefully to an inclusive government and for President Ghani to resign,” he said.
“These talks were underway when the Taliban came into the city. The Taliban entering Kabul city from multiple points was interpreted by our intelligence as hostile advances,” the senior official said.
“We had received intelligence for over a year that the President would be killed in the event of a takeover,” the official added.
Vice President Amrullah Saleh fled on Sunday morning, the former official said, heading north to the Panjshir Valley. Many others fled the presidential compound “shortly after when there was gunfire outside the palace. People in the city were panicked and many security personnel abandoned their posts.”
“At that point, our goal was to save the city and its citizens from fighting in the streets. This was maintained and the deal we had started negotiating (that) continues today in the hands of (former Afghan chief executive) Abdullah Abdullah and (former President Hamid) Karzai.”
Ghani left in haste, the former official said.
“He went to Termez in Uzbekistan, where he spent one night and then from there to the UAE (United Arab Emirates). There was no money with him. He literally just had the clothes he was wearing.”
Ghani, who has been criticized for leaving Afghans to an uncertain fate under the Taliban, denied reports on Wednesday that he left Kabul with millions of dollars in cash. He explained in a Facebook message that he left the country to avert bloodshed, and that he fled without even changing his shoes.
The former official described the thinking inside the palace as the Taliban swept through provincial capitals and how holding Kandahar – Afghanistan’s second largest city – was a critical factor.
“Our thinking was that Kandahar had enough forces in addition to local forces. Additional forces were also sent from Khost, and we were thinking they would be able to hold Kandahar as they did in Helmand (province),” he said.
Once Kandahar fell last Friday, “it was obvious that Kabul could no longer hold but we thought we had more time than we did until Taliban reached Kabul. It happened much faster,” the former official said.
“Before Kandahar fell, a strategy of consolidating forces was drawn with the help of US forces. However, the speed of collapse, which no one foresaw, never allowed for the consolidation of forces to be completed,” he said.
Another reason for the speed of the collapse, he said, was the announcement of the withdrawal of remaining US forces, which was made by US President Joe Biden in April and began in May.
“We, the Afghan government and our international partners, underestimated the effect that the US withdrawal would have on the morale of our troops, as well as the logistical challenges in keeping them supplied,” he said. “We thought, and the Americans also predicted, that we had at least till mid-September to make a political deal and consolidate our forces to create military stalemate.”
In addition, he said, “politically, we underestimated the number of localized and individual deals that had been made in advance between the Taliban and political leaders, commanders and businessmen.”
“These were failures of political leadership, not of our brave soldiers – they fought bravely until the last,” he said. “There is no single scapegoat here to blame and this was not a process that was ever fully controlled by Afghans in the first place.”
The former official said that “in the last few days, when it was clear we couldn’t hold Kabul for long, the main focus was a negotiated settlement that would keep Kabul and its citizens safe.”
“The concern was war inside a city of six million people. We knew that if Ghani left, the guns will be silent.”
When asked what the US attitude was toward Ghani during this period, the former official said: “They didn’t tell him to quit but there was a plan to have an expedited negotiation process, with an empowered team to go to Doha for negotiations to complete in two weeks. Following which, he would hand over power to an inclusive transitional government.”
“The team was supposed to depart on Monday, Kabul fell on Sunday. We were working on this hastily with the Americans till the last minute.”
“Yes, there were and are concerns about Taliban rule, that is why the government was so focused on a peaceful transfer of power to an inclusive transitional government,” the former official said.
Talks with the Taliban and Ghani adviser
He also revealed there had been contacts between a senior adviser to Ghani and the Taliban.
“President Ghani had no direct meetings with the Taliban, but the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, Khalil Haqqani, spoke to (Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib) Sunday afternoon, relaying that they wanted a peaceful transfer of power and that the government should issue a statement of surrender, following which they will negotiate with the team.”
Khalil Haqqani is the uncle of deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and Anas Haqqani, who is involved in efforts to form a new government. Both Khalil Haqqani and Sirajuddin Haqqani are wanted by US authorities for their alleged terrorist activities as part of the Haqqani network.
The former official also spoke about efforts underway in Kabul in the last few days to form a new government.
“There are efforts in Kabul on the formation of an inclusive government, led now by Dr. Abdullah and former President Karzai. We started those efforts last week and we support those efforts and hope the Taliban will not try to create a monopoly government.”
“If the Taliban want to see international legitimacy, they will have to accept to work with others and form an inclusive representative government,” the former official added. “There is still hope that the Taliban will act wisely. So far their actions have been calculated, which is a good sign. They appear to be working closely with political leaders.”
“An inclusive and representative government will give Afghans a respite from further violence and create a country at peace with itself and its neighbors,” he said.