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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani leaves the country as Taliban edges closer to control of the nation


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(CNN) — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the country Sunday, a senior Afghan official and a senior diplomatic source told CNN, as the Taliban engaged in talks with the government in the capital, Kabul, over who will rule the nation.

Afghan Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah also confirmed Ghani had left in a video statement. It was not clear where Ghani was going.

The Taliban has seized control of every major city across the country, apart from Kabul, in just two weeks.

Ghani’s departure signals a likely end, or transformation, of his embattled government and puts the militant group closer to the precipice of control over the entire nation.

The US drawdown of its forces after nearly two decades in Afghanistan has opened a clear path for the Taliban to take on and defeat the country’s security forces. Many key cities fell with little to no resistance.

A source at the Afghan presidential palace told CNN that eight or nine representatives of the Taliban’s delegations from Qatar — where talks for a solution to the conflict are ongoing — are currently inside the Afghan presidential palace. Among them is Anas Haqqani, brother of the deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, the source said.

The US has launched a major operation to evacuate its embassy staff from the capital, and has been forced to boost the number of troops and speed up its mission over the weekend, as the extraordinary speed by the Taliban toward Kabul became apparent late Friday.

On Sunday, two sources familiar with the operation to evacuate US personnel from the embassy in Kabul said all staff there would be pulled out over the next 72 hours, including the top officials.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that all fighters had been instructed to be on standby at all entrances to Kabul until a peaceful and satisfactory transfer of power was agreed. He appealed for calm and tried to assure Kabul’s residents that any transition would be “peaceful.”

The group was “assuring all the banks, businesses, money exchange shops that they will be safe and protected under the Taliban and nobody would touch or bother anyone in Kabul,” he said.

“All the wealthy people, the businessmen, they should be safe and protected. None of the Taliban are allowed to go to any houses or conduct searches on businesses and the Islamic Emirate gives them full protection and they should be safe and not worry.”

He also said those who had fought against the Taliban had nothing to fear.

“The people who are trying to fight against us, we suggest to them not to do so and they will be fully protected. They can leave as ordinary people.”

Acting Afghan Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal said Sunday that Kabul would not be attacked and that the government will shift power peacefully to a transitional administration, though he did not say what a transitional government may look like.

If the country falls entirely to the Taliban, it would make for a bleak end to a war that has cost many lives and dollars over nearly 20 years with little progress in building a sovereign state.

People flee and US evacuation speeds up

A CNN team on the ground in Kabul witnessed jammed roads out of the city and to the airport as people tried to flee the city, or even the country.

People are lining up at ATMs and banks to withdraw their savings, and are stocking up on food at markets.

A source at the Hamid Karzai international airport in Kabul told CNN that a number of high-ranking Afghan officials, including some of Ghani’s advisors, arrived at the VIP lounge of the airport and were waiting for a flight out of the city. Their destinations are unknown.

Most of the US diplomats are also expected to go to the airport to fly home.

Meanwhile, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has requested that Taliban fighters not enter Kabul until the US citizens are evacuated, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

The operation to send US staff back home within 72 hours is a rapid acceleration of the process that was only announced on Thursday, when US President Joe Biden said he would send 3,000 troops to arrive by the end of Sunday.

On Saturday he increased that number, authorizing 5,000 in total as the Taliban circled in on Kabul, the final major city left in government control.

A small number of core personnel, including the top US diplomat in the country, will remain at Kabul’s airport for now, the two sources who spoke to CNN on the evacuation said. This means that the US embassy in Kabul will be shuttered — at least for the time being — by Tuesday.

US officials have repeatedly told CNN that the US doesn’t have strong intelligence on the ground in the country, which is one of the reason the operation has been expedited.

One reason for the lack of intel is simply because the US has withdrawn most of its troops, who would usually collect information, and as one US defense official put it, this has left the United States blind.

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