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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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. 

12:42 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

French embassy officials in Afghanistan have relocated to Kabul airport

From CNN's Artemis Moshtaghian

French embassy officials have relocated their embassy to a site at the Kabul airport citing “the extremely rapid deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan,” according to a statement issued on Sunday by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The embassy remains operational in order to facilitate the evacuation of French citizens currently in Kabul, according to Le Drian.

On instructions from French President Emmanuel Macron, the Ministry of the Armed Forces will deploy military reinforcements to the United Arab Emirates to assist with evacuations from Afghanistan to Abu Dhabi which are expected to take place in the coming hours, the statement reads.

12:43 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

US senators receive intelligence briefing on Afghanistan

From CNN's Jenny Hansler and Jasmine Wright 

Senators received their own intelligence briefing from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley Sunday on the unfolding collapse of Afghanistan, but a senate aide told CNN the meeting was not contentious and focused mostly on evacuations. 

Senators were told there are as many as 60,000 people who could potentially qualify as Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders or applicants, P1 and P2 visa holders, or others like human rights defenders.

The Biden administration has surged capacity for evacuations but a key challenge will be whether people can get to Kabul, per this aide. Blinken said Qatar and a couple other countries are being helpful in housing people at least temporarily.

The officials were also asked about the potential for terrorist activity as well as engagement with Pakistan. They would not provide information on the terrorist threats in an unclassified setting, but the aide said it didn’t sound like Pakistan was being helpful on the situation.

Another source tells CNN that both the House and Senate briefings were both roughly 45 minutes long and that the State Department is following up with members who weren’t able to have their questions answered due to “technical issues.” 

Asked about the briefings, a White House official told CNN that "the White House remains in touch with House and Senate leadership to conduct classified briefings with staff soon and when Members are in Washington."

12:16 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

UK ambassador to Afghanistan remains in Kabul

From CNN's Katharina Krebs

The UK ambassador to Afghanistan remains in Kabul and staff are doing all they can to help remaining UK nationals leave the country, UK Foreign Office spokesperson told CNN on Sunday. 

“We have reduced our diplomatic presence in response to the situation on the ground, but our Ambassador remains in Kabul and UK Government staff continue to work to provide assistance to British nationals and to our Afghan staff," the Foreign Office spokesperson said. 

1:11 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

Afghan defense minister curses fleeing President

From CNN's Tim Lister

Then-Afghan Minister of National Defense Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi speaks to the media at the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 11, 2014.
Then-Afghan Minister of National Defense Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi speaks to the media at the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 11, 2014. Jim Bourg/AFP/Getty Images

The acting Afghan Minister of National Defense Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi issued a brief tweet Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani and senior officials had left Afghanistan. In a clear reference to the former President, he said:

“They tied our hands behind our backs and sold the homeland, damn the rich man and his gang,” Bismillah wrote on his official Twitter account.

Earlier, the Afghan Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah bitterly criticized Ghani for fleeing the country.

In a video statement recorded in Kabul, Abdullah said: "The fact that the former Afghan president left the country and put the people and country in such a bad situation, God will hold him accountable and the people of Afghanistan will also judge him [for doing so]."

Ghani is a former economist and academic, who served as Afghanistan's president since 2014. He was reelected in September 2019 but due to a protracted process was not sworn in until March 2020.  

12:09 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

US Embassy instructs Americans in Kabul to shelter in place

From CNN's Jenny Hansler

The US Embassy in Kabul – which is now operating out of the Kabul airport – instructed US citizens in the capital to shelter in place Sunday.

“The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place,” the security alert issued Sunday said.

The embassy said that Americans “wanting assistance in departing the country should register for any option that might be identified to return to the United States,” and must complete an online form for each person.

“Spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens in Afghanistan who are awaiting immigrant visas should also complete this form if they wish to depart,” the embassy said. “Please do so as soon as possible. You must complete this form even if you’ve previously submitted your information to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul," it said.

“Do not call the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for details or updates about the flight. This form is the only way to communicate interest in flight options,” the security alert emphasized.

12:12 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

"People are bracing themselves for the worst," CNN's Clarissa Ward says as the Taliban enter Kabul

From CNN's Clarissa Ward in Kabul

CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward on August 15, 2021.
CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward on August 15, 2021. CNN

"Things are getting very, very quiet on the streets," CNN's Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward told Brian Stelter as the Taliban entered the capital Kabul. 

"That may be because the Taliban spokesperson actually announced that people should stay in their homes. He urged everyone not to go out, saying that that would only contribute to a sense of chaos, that the Taliban is trying to keep this as peaceful as possible. And as far as we can hear, people are certainly adhering to that advice, staying at home, staying hunkered down," she said.

But Ward described the sense of fear and panic on the streets saying, "People for the moment are bracing themselves for the worst. What tomorrow will bring, what the future will look like."

She explained the sense of chaos as the president had fled the country with no transitional government in place.

"The Taliban says they will now begin assuming responsibility for key ministries. Only tomorrow I suppose will we really get a sense of what that is going to look like, what a fall in Kabul will look like with the Taliban in full control," Ward added.


12:41 p.m. ET, August 15, 2021

US lawmakers press for answers on Afghan drawdown during briefing with Biden officials 

From CNN's Melanie Zanona and Lauren Fox

In a virtual briefing with members of Congress this morning with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, they were pressed by lawmakers about the rapid timeline of the drawdown in Afghanistan amidst the news that Taliban fighters have entered Kabul. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pushed officials on why the process happened so quickly, saying “We didn’t give them air cover. You say you had this plan. No one would plan out this outcome. The ramifications of this for America will go on for decades and it won’t just be in Afghanistan,” according to a GOP source on the call.

But a Democratic source on the call said Austin defended the administration’s actions as an extension of the timeline for withdrawal initially laid out during the Trump administration.

Austin also said the US maintains the capacity to do air strikes to respond to any Taliban actions that interfere with evacuation.

Milley said the evacuation was a “highly dynamic and very risky operation” and also called it a “deliberate and controlled evacuation.”

Austin said the security situation rapidly deteriorated across the country, with Taliban controlling the majority of the territory. The Taliban faced very little resistance from Afghan forces.

“We will defend ourselves and our people and any attack on an American will be met with strong and immediate response,” Austin said.

Austin also said they want to keep Kabul airport open and secure. They had a contingency plan in place, which is why they were able to respond so rapidly to the rapidly deteriorating situation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked about the status of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani; officials refused to say where he is because it wasn’t a secure line.

Some more background: The call largely walked members of Congress through the strategy for removals from the country and specifically the capital with the secretaries saying that the following groups would be prioritized. Officials did not have any answers for who interpreters and other Afghanis could actually call to leave.

Blinken said the DOD is deploying aircraft to move more people out and will be brought directly to DOD places in the US. They are still having conversations with third countries, and nothing is finalized. They are prioritizing US citizens and local staffs and Afghan SIV holders and applicants; P1 and P2 folks; and women advocates. Embassy staff (non combatants), local employed staff, SIV, qualifying refugees and other third country staff under agreements that the US has with those embassies would also be prioritized.

A Democratic member on the call tells CNN that diplomatic efforts to find third countries for Afghans for processing is still underway, and a number of offers have been put out there, but nothing has been finalized yet. Officials made clear it is still a priority. Officials also said as of now Kabul airport is still open to charter and commercial flights