By August 15, several thousand Taliban fighters had encircled the Afghan capital, Kabul, after seizing most of the country in a blistering military offensive against the Western-backed Afghan government.
With the militants at the city gates, President Ashraf Ghani and his close team of advisers were at the Arg presidential palace. Among them was National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, the president’s righthand man.
In the afternoon, Ghani, his wife, Mohib, and several other close aides boarded an Mi-17 helicopter and flew to neighboring Uzbekistan from where they eventually made it to the United Arab Emirates.
The internationally recognized government in Kabul, propped up by nearly two decades of foreign military and economic assistance, had collapsed. The last U.S. and NATO forces that were scheduled to leave the country by August 30 retreated to Kabul’s airport.
But the circumstances under which the government crumbled and the president left the country remain contested.
U.S. media reports have quoted unreleased documents and unnamed American officials as saying Ghani fled the country before the Taliban had breached the city. The Taliban has said it only entered Kabul after receiving news of Ghani’s escape and in consultation with Washington. U.S. officials have said a deal had been agreed a day earlier for Ghani to hand over power to the Taliban.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi recorded on December 15, Mohib disputed that version of events.
He said despite the Taliban's pledges not to enter the city of some 6 million people, its fighters were spotted in many parts of the city. To prevent fighting in Kabul, Mohib said a decision was made “at the very last minute” to leave the country.
He said that keeping in mind Afghanistan’s tumultuous history -- in which most of its leaders have either been killed or exiled in violent invasions, power struggles, coups, and rebellions -- they decided leaving was their only option.
“We had concluded that if the president stayed in Kabul, it would only foment a civil war,” he said via Skype from the United States. “It would have only created another tragedy for Afghanistan in which the government’s collapse would have been accompanied by the humiliation and hanging of yet another leader.”
When the Taliban first seized control of Kabul in 1996, it brutally tortured and executed former President Mohammad Najibullah, Afghanistan’s last communist leader, who had been living in a United Nations compound.
Mohib added: “The situation was changing every hour [on August 15]. We had lost control of our army, police, and intelligence forces.”
However, a December 10 investigation by the New Yorker magazine, based on a trove of unreleased U.S. documents, suggested Mohib and Ghani had first deliberated leaving Kabul in July, just as the Taliban had launched a major military offensive to seize power.
Ghani, according to the story, had ordered the head of presidential security to develop an escape plan to neighboring Tajikistan or Uzbekistan using the Afghan president’s four Mi-17 helicopters.
On August 14, the day before Kabul fell, Mohib asked a contact at the U.S. State Department for help with the evacuation and even made a written request.
“I would like to request that I and PG be included in your evacuation plan in case the political settlement doesn’t work,” the magazine quoted a purported text message from Mohib to a U.S. government contact as saying. Many of the Afghan leader’s confidants and their foreign interlocutors referred to Ghani as “PG” in their communications.
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a December 15 interview that the Taliban had agreed to a deal that would pave the way for a negotiated power-sharing agreement and a peaceful transfer of power. But he said Ghani’s escape from Kabul scuttled those plans.
Mohib rejected Karzai’s claims.
“The Taliban refused to engage [seriously with us] for three years,” he said. “How could they have agreed to such a deal when they knew that the U.S. withdrawal was almost complete?”
Still, Mohib said Ghani was ready to transfer power and was planning to send a delegation to Qatar to hold talks with the Taliban on August 15, before the decision was made to leave the country.
“We were talking to the Americans about going to Doha to negotiate with the Taliban,” he said. “The main points of the talks would have been how could we have an inclusive government and what mechanism to be used to transfer power to the Taliban.”
Mohib, who studied computer systems engineering in Britain, pinned the blame for the fall of the government mostly on the United States, Kabul’s key ally.
In 2018, U.S. negotiators launched direct negotiations with the Taliban over an agreement that would pave the way for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. After nearly two years of grueling talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, the sides signed a deal in February 2020. Kabul, however, was not a party to the talks or the agreement.
“The republic began to crumble on the day the Americans began direct negotiations with the Taliban in Doha without the Afghan government being involved in the talks,” Mohib said.
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat, was the architect of the deal. Many considered the agreement lopsided, heavily favoring the Taliban while undermining the legitimacy of Ghani's government.
“[Khalilzad's] failure was that he could not gain trust of Afghanistan’s president and the Afghan people in regard to the [peace] process,” Mohib said.
Khalilzad himself has blamed Ghani for the debacle.
“We were all surprised by the intransigence of President Ghani in insisting on staying in power till his term ended, despite the fact that he had come out re-elected in a fraudulent election that very few Afghans participated in,” Khalilzad said in October.
Mohib said the new Taliban regime was unlikely to survive because it was repeating the same mistakes of the ousted republic, which excluded the Taliban after other Afghan political factions agreed on power-sharing in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
“Afghans and the international community will not recognize and agree to the repressive and exclusionary [political] system they are attempting to run,” he said.