The Taliban didn’t take the Afghan capital – they were invited, says the man who issued the invitation.
In an Associated Press interview, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai offered some of the first insights into the secret and sudden departure of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – and how he came to invite the Taliban into the city “to protect the population so that the country, the city doesn’t fall into chaos and the unwanted elements who would probably loot the country, loot shops”.
When Ghani left, his security officials also left.
Defence minister Bismillah Khan even asked Karzai if he wanted to leave Kabul when Karzai contacted him to know what remnants of the government still remained.
It turned out there were none.
Not even the Kabul police chief had remained.
Karzai, who was the country’s president for 13 years after the Taliban were first ousted after the 9/11 attacks, refused to leave.
In a wide-ranging interview at his tree-lined compound in the centre of the city where he lives with his wife and young children, Karzai was adamant that Ghani’s flight scuttled a last-minute push by himself, the government’s chief negotiator Abdullah Abdullah and the Taliban leadership in Doha that would have resulted in the Taliban entering the capital as part of a negotiated agreement.
The countdown to a possible deal began on August 14, the day before the Taliban came to power.
Karzai and Abdullah met Ghani and they agreed that they would leave for Doha the next day with a list of 15 others to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.
The Taliban were already on the outskirts of Kabul but Karzai said the leadership in Qatar promised the insurgent force would remain outside the city until the deal was struck.
Early on the morning of August 15, Karzai said, he waited to draw up the list.
The capital was fidgety, on edge, as rumours were swirling about a Taliban takeover.
Karzai called Doha but he was told the Taliban would not enter the city.
At noon, the Taliban called to say that “the government should stay in its positions and should not move that they have no intention to (go) into the city,” Karzai said.
“I and others spoke to various officials and assurances were given to us that, yes, that was the case, that the Americans and the government forces were holding firm to the places (and) that Kabul would not fall.”
By about 2.45pm though, it became apparent Ghani had fled the city.
Karzai called the defence minister, called the interior minister and searched for the Kabul police chief – everyone was gone.
“There was no official present at all in the capital, no police chief, no corps commander, no other units. They had all left.”
Ghani’s own protection unit’s deputy chief called Karzai to come to the palace and take over the presidency.
He declined, saying legally he had no right to the job.
Instead the former president decided to make a public, televised message, with his children at his side “so that the Afghan people know that we are all here”.
Karzai was adamant that there would have been an agreement for a peaceful transition had Ghani remained in Kabul.
“Absolutely. Absolutely. That is what we were preparing for, what we were hoping (along) with the chairman of the peace council to go to Doha that evening, or the next morning, and to finalise the agreement,” he said.
“And I believe the Taliban leaders were also waiting for us in Doha for the same… objective, for the same purpose.”