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Taliban palace takeover confirms power shift

Hours after Ghani fled, govt official escorts ‘Maulvi Saheb’ into palace for peaceful handover
Taliban fighters sit around President Ghani’s wooden desk at the presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday.

Carlotta Gall, Daniel Victor   |   New York   |   Published 17.08.21, 02:17 AM

The sight of gun-toting Taliban fighters behind President Ashraf Ghani’s ornate wooden desk, deep inside the Afghan presidential palace now under their control, served as visual confirmation that power in the country had fully shifted hands.

Few people imagined two decades ago — or even two weeks ago — that the heavily defended palace in a heavily defended capital would fall so swiftly. Just several days ago, Ghani addressed the nation from behind the same desk, in front of the same painting.


But hours after Ghani fled the country on Sunday, Taliban leaders were addressing the news media there, saying that they would use the palace to announce the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Their takeover of the palace, known as the Arg, was made peacefully. The head of the Presidential Protection Service, which has guarded it for most of the last two decades, shook hands with a Taliban commander and announced the handover.

The government official, Muhammadullah Amin, said he had been asked to meet and escort the Taliban commander, whom he addressed by the religious title Maulvi, into the palace by the government’s longtime chief negotiator with the Taliban.

“After a few contacts with Maulvi Saheb, I came here together and currently we are in the Gulkhana palace,” he said, referring to one of the palace buildings. “I say welcome to them, and I congratulate them.”

The Taliban commander stood and shook his hand. “I said, ‘We will take a selfie, and now we have taken it together,’” Amin said.

The encounter was filmed and aired by Al Jazeera on Sunday night and was widely shared on social media.

Amin said that Ghani had left from the palace via helicopter for Kabul’s international airport on Sunday afternoon and then boarded a flight out of the country. He did not say where the President had gone, but Ghani is thought to be in Tajikistan.

“In the beginning here, during the day, the situation was not good,” Amin said. “Everybody was frightened that, God forbid, something would happen here. Most of the officials left. I myself left.”

The peaceful seizing of the palace stood in contrast to past exchanges of power in Afghanistan, when the palace was the scene of violence and vandalism.

In 1978, rebel troops killed President Mohammad Daud inside the palace, which suffered severe damage during a daylong siege. The next year, President Noor Mohammad Taraki was mortally wounded in a gun battle inside the palace. His successor, Hafizullah Amin, was executed when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and stormed the palace in December 1979.

When the Taliban took control in 1996, fighters damaged parts of the buildings and much of the artwork, according to the government, but successive governments preserved artifacts and gold stored in underground vaults in the palace.

‘Day of Judgment’

The citizens of Kabul were given reassurances that they would be safe, that a deal had been struck to avoid a fullfledged attack by the Taliban on their city. But for many Afghans, the scenes playing out around them on Sunday in their capital told another story.

It was not just that their President had fled the country. There were innumerable smaller signs that their world was about to change.

Police posts had been abandoned, and the officers had shed their uniforms in favour of civilian garb. Posters of women at beauty salons were painted over. And on the east side of the city, inmates at Kabul’s main prison seized the opportunity to break out.

“This is the Day of Judgment,” declared an onlooker as he filmed the inmates.

New York Times News Services

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