August 15, 2021, Afghanistan-Taliban news

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Maureen Chowdhury, Brad Lendon and Joshua Berlinger, CNN

Updated 0401 GMT (1201 HKT) August 16, 2021
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4:05 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Presidential palace in Kabul "handed over" to the Taliban

From CNN’s Sarah El Sirgany and Tim Lister

A US Black Hawk military helicopter flies over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15.
A US Black Hawk military helicopter flies over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15. Rahmat Gul/AP

The presidential palace in Kabul has now been “handed over” to the Taliban, according to the Al Jazeera network.

It was vacated just hours ago by government officials, including former President Ashraf Ghani who has fled the country.

According to the Al Jazeera network, which broadcast scenes of the Taliban live from the palace, one of the Taliban officials said that Kabul was a different city to the one they left 20 years ago. 

"Securing Kabul is a huge responsibility. It's different from the city we left 20 years ago," Al Jazeera reported, quoting the Taliban official at the palace.

The Al Jazeera correspondent at the palace reported that three Afghan government officials were present for the palace “handover” to the Taliban.

A Taliban security official then said that "no blood was shed in the handover." He also said there is a "peaceful handover of government facilities ongoing across the country."

One of the Taliban officials also said that they want an all-inclusive government in Afghanistan.

He further said that Taliban leader as well as two of his deputies are now in Afghanistan and that they will come to Kabul when the security situation improves.

Another Taliban member present for the ceremony, spoke briefly in English to say he had formerly been held by the US in Guantanamo.

 

4:10 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

"You'll probably see history describe this as a day that will live in infamy," CNN's Christiane Amanpour says

From CNN's Christiane Amanpour

Taliban fighters sit on a vehicle along the street in Jalalabad province, Afghanistan on August 15.
Taliban fighters sit on a vehicle along the street in Jalalabad province, Afghanistan on August 15. AFP/Getty Images

The Taliban was making empty promises leading up to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, CNN's chief international anchor Christiane Ampour reported.

"Most analysts who understood what was not happening in Doha, i.e. peace talks that were meant to engineer some kind of proper transition from one US-led force to the Afghans, didn't pay off. The Afghan Taliban continued to fight on the ground while they continued to make empty promises to the United States in Doha, Qatar," Amanpour told CNN's Fredericka Whitefeld Sunday.

Amanpour noted that the Afghan Taliban's efforts to gain control in the country are "very similar to what they did back in 1996, and the 90s, when they also stormed in and by and large took most of the cities, including Kabul, without a fight."

"I think you'll probably see history describe this as a day that will live in infamy. You have in 20 years, and fast approaching the anniversary of 9/11, the very reason for the United States to enter Afghanistan and to correctly push back Al Qaeda and the Taliban which attacked the homeland, has now been completely and utterly handed back to the Taliban. They have been handed back, by the United States' rapid withdrawal, the land of Afghanistan. And I think what you're hearing from a lot of American military is a deep sense of regret. A deep sense that this perhaps did not need to happen," she said.

3:02 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

UAE assisting in evacuation of diplomatic missions for several countries with embassies in Afghanistan

From CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian, Mostafa Salem and Tim Lister 

The United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirms that they are facilitating the evacuation of the country’s diplomatic mission from Afghanistan, according to a statement obtained by CNN.

The UAE MFA also tells CNN that they are working on evacuating diplomatic staff from France, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, Australia, the Office of the United Nations Food Program, the United States, Germany, and Egypt.

UAE MFA said several aircrafts “from a variety of nations” are departing from Kabul airport on Sunday and are due to arrive to the UAE Sunday night and Monday morning.

A spokesperson for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said that flights in and out of the airport will be allowed to proceed as normal. There has been no Taliban effort to take the airport. “We assure all embassies, diplomatic missions, institutions and residences of foreign nationals in Kabul that there is no danger is posed to them,” Mujahid said in a statement on Sunday. 

 

11:40 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

The Taliban have seized the presidential palace in Kabul. Here’s more on who they are.

Taliban fighters entered Afghanistan’s presidential palace hours after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday, a milestone in the insurgent group’s assumption of control over the capital city Kabul.

One unit shared pictures of the palace interior – intact, but empty and apparently abandoned by Afghan officials – on an official Telegram account.

Taliban representatives had been in talks with the government for hours over who would rule the nation, following the militant group’s strikingly rapid advance across the country, in which it seized power over dozens of key cities, often with little to no resistance.

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban are a Sunni Islamist organization operating primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They formed in 1994 under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar a few years after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. They were members of the Afghan resistance fighters, known collectively as mujahedeen, who were students of Omar.

Taliban, in Pashto, is the plural of Talib, which means student.

The group’s aim is to impose its interpretation of Islamic law on Afghanistan and remove foreign influence from the country.

The group started gaining ground in 1994 and captured the capital city of Kabul in September 1996. They had a controlling presence in the country between 1996 to 2001.

During those years, the group imposed strict Islamic laws on the Afghan people. Women had to wear head-to-toe coverings, were not allowed to attend school or work outside the home and were forbidden to travel alone. Television, music and non-Islamic holidays were also banned.

Omar led the Taliban from the mid-1990s until his death in 2013. Omar formed a relationship with Osama Bin Laden in 1997.

Less than a month after terrorists linked to al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks, American and allied forces began an invasion of Afghanistan called Operation Enduring Freedom, to stop the Taliban from providing a safe-haven to al Qaeda and to stop al Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a base of operations for terrorist activities.

On Dec. 7, 2001 the Taliban lost its last major stronghold as the city of Kandahar fell.

Read more about the group here.

CNN's Clarissa Ward, Tim Lister, Angela Dewan and Saleem Mehsud contributed reporting to this post. 

2:55 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

UN Security Council will meet on Afghanistan Monday

From CNN’s Richard Roth

The United Nations Security Council will meet regarding Afghanistan Monday morning, a diplomatic source tells CNN.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief the Council, with private consultations to follow, they said.

In remarks on Friday, Guterres called on the Taliban to halt their offensive in Afghanistan and didn’t directly answer when asked what he would say to those who feel Afghanistan has been abandoned by the international community.

2:57 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Discussions underway about Biden's next steps in addressing Afghanistan

From CNN's Jeff Zeleny

US President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, DC, on August 12, 2021.
US President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, DC, on August 12, 2021. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Discussions are underway among top White House advisers for how President Biden should address the deepening crisis in Afghanistan, officials said Sunday, but no final decision has yet been reached about whether the President should return to Washington from his planned August vacation.

While Biden can receive the same level of briefings from Camp David, as he has been doing throughout the weekend, officials are aware of the optics of the President being out of town during this perilous moment. Several administration officials have also been on vacation, but began returning to work remotely Sunday or in the West Wing.

A range of options are being debated – about returning to Washington or addressing the nation – but several officials said events were too fluid and no final decisions have been made.

“He is deeply engaged from Camp David,” one senior administration official said, who did not rule out the President returning to the White House.

But the official said the White House “did not want this to become the Biden administration’s Katrina,” a reference to the 2005 hurricane that the Bush administration was slow in responding to during his August vacation.

Another readout of Biden’s Sunday briefings, including conversations with foreign leaders, is expected later today, an official said.

The White House also posted this photo of Biden, donned in a polo shirt, in today’s virtual briefing:

2:52 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Terror groups could reconstitute in Afghanistan sooner than expected, top US general says

From CNN’s Melanie Zanona, Natasha Bertrand and Jennifer Hansler

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley holds a press conference in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2021.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley holds a press conference in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2021. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

In a briefing for senators on Sunday morning, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said terrorist groups like al Qaeda could reconstitute in Afghanistan sooner than the two years defense officials had previously estimated to Congress because of the recent, rapid Taliban takeover of the country, according to a Senate aide briefed on the comments. The situation could result in a greater counterterrorism threat, he acknowledged. 

Senators were also told there are as many as 60,000 people who could potentially qualify as Special Immigrant Visa holders or applicants, P1 and P2 visa holders, or others like human rights defenders, two Senate aides said. The White House did not return a request for comment on those numbers. 

Axios was first to report on Milley’s comments. 

During a briefing for the House later in the morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the situation in Kabul “the worst outcome possible.”

“This is remnants of Vietnam, watching helicopters come off and fly by our embassy right now,” he said, according to a GOP source on the call. McCarthy added: “yes, I have passion, I have anger. … For everyone who we promised we would protect, how are they ever going to get out of there as of today?” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated that the administration had little option but to withdraw beginning on May 1 because of a deal made by the Trump administration, which would have resulted in resumed attacks by the Taliban on US and coalition forces amid the militant group’s nationwide offensive. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that while the Pentagon had been planning for “a number of potential outcomes,” the “lack of resistance that the Taliban faced from Afghan forces has been extremely disconcerting.”

“They had all the advantages, they had 20 years of training by our coalition forces, a modern air force, good equipment and weapons,” he said, according to sources on the call. “But you can’t buy will and you can’t purchase leadership. And that’s really what was missing in this situation.”

2:10 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Taliban take control of presidential palace in Kabul

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Tim Lister and Mostafa Salem

The Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 9, 2020.
The Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 9, 2020. Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Taliban fighters are assuming control of the Afghan capital of Kabul and have taken control of the presidential palace, after the country's president Ashraf Ghani fled to Tajikistan. 

One of its units shared pictures of the Palace interior – seemingly intact, but empty and abandoned by Afghan officials – on an official Telegram account. A video posted on social media a few hours before showed fighters arriving at the Presidential Palace in Kabul 

The group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said earlier that its forces would begin entering areas of the city where the government officials and security forces had abandoned their posts. 

“This morning the Islamic Emirate released a statement that our forces were outside Kabul city and we did not want to enter Kabul through military ways,” he said. “However, now we are getting reports that the district police offices are evacuated, police has left their job of ensuring the security, also the ministries are emptied and the security personnel of the Kabul administration has fled.”

“Therefore, in order to avoid any looting and burglary in Kabul and stop opportunists from harming the people, the Islamic Emirate has advised its forces to enter those areas of the city where the enemy has left and the areas are at risk of looting and burglary,” he added.

Social media posts and witness accounts suggest Taliban presence within the city is growing. 

“Our forces are quietly entering the city, they won’t bother anyone, government employees both civilian and military should be assured that no one will harm them, no Mujahid is allowed to enter people’s houses, or hurt or bother anyone,” the groups spokesperson added.

The Taliban takeover happens amid a massive evacuation effort by the US and NATO allies of their citizens and support staff within the country. 

Earlier reports suggested a transitional government would be formed but the departure of President Ghani seems to have scuppered those efforts. 

A meeting, which was expected to happen between a high-level Afghan government delegation and Taliban in Doha, now “may not happen,” a source with knowledge of the intra-Afghan talks told CNN on Sunday.

Regardless, the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, politician Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and former President Hamid Karzai have established a Coordinating Council to “better manage the affairs related to peace and peaceful transfer,” Karzai said in a statement. 

 

2:07 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

"It's clear" there will be a new government in Kabul "very shortly," UK prime minister says 

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks in London on July 12, 2021.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks in London on July 12, 2021. Daniel Leal-Olivas/WPA Pool/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says it is clear there will be a new government in place in Afghanistan "very shortly."

“It’s clear there is going to be very shortly a new government in Kabul, or a new political dispensation, however you want to put it,” he said in an interview on Sunday.

Johnson went on to call on the UK’s allies in the West to “work together” to make sure Afghanistan does not become the breeding ground for terrorism that it once was.

“I think it’s very important that the west, collectively, should work together to get over to that new government, be it by the Taliban or anybody else, that nobody wants Afghanistan once again to be a breeding ground for terror,” he said. “We don’t think that it’s in the interests of the people of Afghanistan that it should lapse back into that.”

“We don’t want anybody bilaterally recognizing the Taliban, we want a united position amongst all the like-minded, as far as we can get one,” he added.

Johnson described the situation in Afghanistan as “extremely difficult” and worsening, adding that, in his view, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was expected.

“I think it’s fair to say the US decision to pull out has accelerated things,” he explained. “We’ve known for a long time this was the way things were going.”

The British prime minister added that his government’s priority was first and foremost to UK citizens and Afghan support staff that helped the UK over the past two decades.

“Our priority is to make sure we deliver on obligations to UK nationals in Afghanistan, to all those who have helped the British effort in Afghanistan over 20 years and to get them out as fast as we can,” he said, adding that the UK ambassador was working around the clock.

“Two thousand have left, we’re going to get as many as we can in the next few days,” he concluded.