KABUL: The Taliban didn’t take the Afghan capital, they were invited, says the man who reportedly issued the invitation.
In an 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 doesn’t fall into chaos.
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 in the wake of 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 plan focused on the Taliban’s entry into the capital.
He and Abdullah, the government’s chief negotiator, had been working with the Taliban leadership in Doha on a negotiated agreement to allow the militia to enter the capital under controlled conditions. The countdown to a possible deal began on Aug 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 Aug 15, Karzai said, he waited to draw up the list. The capital was fidgety, on edge. Rumours were swirling about a Taliban takeover. Karzai called Doha. 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 (as) they have no intention to (go) into the city,” Karzai said.
By about 2:45pm, though, it became apparent Ghani had fled the city. Karzai called the defence minister, called the interior minister, searched for the Kabul police chief. Everyone was gone.
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.
Today, Karzai regularly meets members of the Taliban leadership and says the world must engage with them. “Equally important,” he said, “is that Afghans have to come together”.
He added: “An end to that can only come when Afghans get together, find their own way out.”