This is what defeat looks like. Embassy burn bins blazing through day and night. The president fleeing. Helicopters and armoured SUVs shuttling foreigners to the airport, amid the anxious bureaucracy of evacuation with its queues and “go” bags at the airport, the few items that you keep packed for when you have to flee.
The speed of the fall of Afghanistan leaves many questions unanswered, not least whether the devastating humiliation for the Afghan government, its military forces and its western backers was in any way avoidable.
As Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Qatar’s Al Jazeera English satellite news channel that the insurgents were “awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul city”, other officials later confirmed that they were seeking the unconditional surrender by the central government and to assume power.
All of which raises questions over the utility of an Afghan government delegation, including senior official Abdullah Abdullah, that is planning to travel to Qatar on Sunday to meet representatives of the Taliban, with US officials also involved.
Given the scale of the collapse, that is entirely to be expected. The question remains, however, precisely what happens next, not just in the next few days after the fall of Ashraf Ghani’s government, but in the coming weeks and months?
For now it appears it is in the Taliban’s interest to allow the evacuation of the embassies and western concerns to go ahead relatively unmolested, although in the chaos that has descended that remains an open question.
Reports of tense talks behind closed doors in Kabul point in one direction; shooting in the streets in another.
While the optics of what it has achieved in recents days do not require a major confrontation battle with the US, UK and other foreign forces who have flown in to provide cover for the retreat, the proximity of western forces and the Taliban in such close proximity risks clashes, perhaps even serious escalation.
However the fact that the the withdrawal is occurring under the eyes of Taliban fighters who have reached the capital city is probably enough to underline what has happened: the world’s most powerful military, which pumped billions into Afghanistan and expended vast amounts of political capital, as well as US, British and other lives, is – as former US ambassador Ryan Crocker observed last week – handing power to the Taliban.
And it is clear that the Taliban have won. The messaging from Washington throughout the last week, not least from Joe Biden, had a grim finality. What was said in public – that the Afghan government had to stand up and fight for its own country – barely disguised what was unspoken and understood by Afghan politicians, their generals and warlord allies and Taliban alike:
There was no help coming.
As the Afghan defence minister, Bismillah Khan, sought to reassure the public that Kabul would remain “secure”, the insurgents also tried to calm residents of the capital, insisting their fighters would not enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses.
They also said they would offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces. Believing that, given the Taliban’s history of assassination, is a tall ask.
“No one’s life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk,” the insurgents said. But they also warned no one to enter the area around the capital.
The reality is that such statements are in both sides’ interest at least in the short term. As the Taliban’s victories in the past week have increasingly had the hallmarks of negotiated surrenders, allowing military, officials and warlords to depart after brief skirmishes, the insurgents will hope Kabul can be secured with minimal confrontation, in exchange for allowing the embassies to depart.
And as some European countries have made clear they are shutting diplomatic shop, the US’s insistence it would keep its own mission open – with its ambassador in place – notably changed as Sunday progressed and “given security conditions”.
What happens after the fall of Ghani’s government will be the most challenging.
Although the Taliban have already begun taking meetings in the provincial capitals they have captured, one after the other pipelines of foreign aid that have for so long kept Afghanistan afloat – sustaining 75% of government budgets – are at risk, offering negotiators at least one piece of leverage if the Taliban are serious about governing the country.
More widely, the defeat of the country’s other traditional power-brokers – above Ghani – in places outside of Kabul, including warlords such as Ismail Khan in Herat, and Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north, undermine the claims to the kind of power-sharing being pushed in the west.
On the Taliban’s side, however, history suggests that they may struggle to hold some parts of the country and that – as in the past – accommodations will be necessary.
But most frighteningly unresolved are a spectrum of human rights issues on everything from women’s rights, including girls’ education, to freedom of expression and the fear of persecution of minority groups like the Hazara – not least in Kabul – who have suffered brutal repression at the hands of the Taliban in the past.
With numerous atrocities reported already around the country, from Spin Boldak in the south to Kunduz in the north, many in Kabul – either through ethnicity or via their associations with the west and the government, will be rightly frightened.
They are all questions, it now seems, answers to which will take shape in the coming days.