LONDON (NYTIMES) – Former president Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said he fled the country to prevent the destruction of Kabul as Taliban fighters advanced on the capital, offering the most detailed defense of his actions since the government’s collapse in August.
Ghani, speaking to the BBC in an interview broadcast on Thursday – his first interview since he fled – said his sudden departure was the “hardest” decision he made.
He noted that even in the hours before he boarded a helicopter and was spirited out of the country, he did not know it would be his last day in his homeland. The Taliban had largely surrounded Kabul and panic gripped the city when Ghani, along with his wife and close associates, fled on the afternoon of Aug 15.
Ghani told BBC’s Radio 4 that if he took “a stand,” the presidential palace security guards would have been killed.
“And they were not capable of defending me,” he added. “Two different factions of the Taliban were closing in from two different directions,” Ghani explained. “And the possibility of a massive conflict between them that would destroy the city of 5 million and bring havoc to the people was enormous.”
The decision to leave was frenzied, he said, and he was not given “more than two minutes” to get ready for the flight out of the country.
Living in UAE
More than three months later, he is well aware of the criticisms from many corners that he abandoned his nation when he was needed most.
“My life work has been destroyed,” he said. “My values had been trampled on. And I have been made a scapegoat.”
But he once again defended his actions. “I had to sacrifice myself in order to save Kabul,” he said.
The Taliban took full control of Kabul hours after Ghani’s escape and the collapse of his security forces.
Three days later, Ghani resurfaced in the United Arab Emirates, where he has been living since then.
Ghani said the initial plan was to leave Kabul for Khost, a province in southeastern Afghanistan, where CIA-backed militiamen, known as the Khost Protection Force, were based.
But the plan changed because Khost had already fallen to the Taliban.
Ghani also denied the accusations that he stole millions of dollars while fleeing the country.
In the interview, he expanded on an apology, written in English, that he posted on Twitter in September.
At the time, his apology was not received warmly by Afghans who were enraged by his sudden escape.
Some accused him of betraying a nation and a country he had led for nearly eight years.
The Taliban’s new government has shown little interest in adopting the achievements of the past two decades. It has imposed restrictions on free press and women’s rights, and marginalised minorities.
The Taliban have also summarily executed or forcibly disappeared dozens of the former government’s security forces since they seized power in August, according to reports by human rights groups.
Afghanistan’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Millions of Afghans do not have enough to eat, and 1 million children could starve to death this winter.
This all could have been avoided if Ghani had not abandoned Afghans in a very critical moment, and agreed to an orderly transition of power, experts and some Western officials said.
Critics have blamed Ghani for the current economic crisis in Afghanistan, saying his decision to flee the country derailed a last-ditch deal that could have prevented a complete takeover of the government by the Taliban and the sanctions that came after.
But Ghani criticised the United States for negotiating directly with the Taliban without involving the Afghan government, saying the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners – part of the deal – emboldened the insurgents, who ultimately overthrew his government.
“I was painted in total black,” he said, adding that the Afghan government was never given a chance to negotiate directly with the Taliban. “Ambassador Khalilzad sat down with them,” he said, referring to Zalmay Khalilzad, the American former peace envoy.
“It became an American issue. Not an Afghan issue.”
“They erased us,” he added.
The Afghan government and Taliban negotiators did meet beginning in fall 2020 in Doha, Qatar, and established principles and procedures to guide peace negotiations, but these talks quickly stalled after months of bureaucratic hangups and escalating violence in Afghanistan.
One sticking point had been the Taliban’s demand that Ghani step down as president to make way for a new government. But Ghani had refused, insisting he was the country’s legitimate elected leader.
Khalilzad, who also spoke on the same radio show, rejected Ghani’s statement, blaming him and the leaders of Afghan security forces for the “failure” of the Afghan government and the collapse of its forces.
“There was an agreement that President Ghani had agreed to, on Aug 15, that the Talibs would not go into Kabul,” Khalilzad told BBC Radio 4.
In a phone conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the evening of Aug 14, Ghani confirmed his agreement with a plan to take part in an orderly transition of power at a legal assembly known as a loya jirga, which was scheduled to take place on Aug 30, according to Khalilzad.
“After agreeing to it, to everyone’s surprise, he and a few others departed,” Khalilzad said.
Ghani’s govt sidelined
Ghani, 72, spent over two decades of his life in the United States, first as an anthropology student, then as a professor and a World Bank employee.
He returned to Afghanistan after 2001, working as the country’s finance minister. He won the presidential election in 2014, and was reelected in 2019.
Both elections were marred by widespread fraud. His government was sidelined from the peace talks after the Trump administration engaged directly with the Taliban, signing a deal with the group in February 2020 that called for US troops to withdraw in 2021.
The Taliban intensified attacks on the former government’s forces after President Joe Biden, under pressure from the deal, announced in April that US forces would withdraw from Afghanistan by September.
By early summer, the insurgent group controlled more than half of the districts in Afghanistan.
By late July, the government forces had lost control of the entire rural countryside. In one of the most remarkable military campaigns, the Taliban captured all 33 provincial capitals and Kabul, the nation’s capital, in less than two weeks, without facing much resistance.
The Taliban’s lightning victory shocked many, including Ghani, who had shown little interest in engaging in serious negotiations with them.
Ghani departed Kabul in the early afternoon of Aug 15, boarding helicopters parked at the presidential palace.
The helicopters landed in neighbouring Uzbekistan roughly two hours later. A chartered plane transported him and his companions to the United Arab Emirates the next day.
Among those who fled alongside Ghani were his two most trusted aides, Hamdullah Mohib, his national security adviser, and Fazel Mahmood Fazly, the director of the president’s administrative office.
Mohib and Fazly were the most powerful officials after the president. As the news of Ghani’s escape broke, dozens of government’s officials, cabinet ministers and generals flooded the airport, hoping to catch a flight out of the country.
During the nearly eight years of his presidency, he had centralised the power to such an extent that the entire system collapsed soon after his departure, leaving behind a power vacuum, which the Taliban immediately filled.