World

Former Afghan President Says He Fled Nation to ‘Save Kabul’

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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Ghani, along with his wife and close associates, fled on the afternoon of Aug. 15.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Ghani explained. “And the possibility of a massive conflict between them that would destroy the city of five 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.

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 Mr. Ghani’s escape and the collapse of his security forces. Three days later, Mr. Ghani resurfaced in the United Arab Emirates, where he has been living since then.

Mr. Ghani said the initial plan was to leave Kabul for Khost, a province in southeastern Afghanistan, where C.I.A.-backed militiamen, known as the Khost Protection Force, were based. But the plan changed because Khost had already fallen to the Taliban.

Mr. Ghani also denied the accusations that he stole millions of dollars while fleeing the country.

Taliban fighters entered Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 15. Ashraf Ghani, then the country’s president, left that day. He later defended his actions and said he had “been made a scapegoat.”Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

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 marginalized 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 a million children could starve to death this winter.

This all could have been avoided if Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Ghani criticized 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.

A Taliban guard pushed back a crowd as a bank teller read out the names of those allowed to enter a bank in Mazar-i-Sharif in October. Banks set limits to stop the economy from crashing.Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

“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.

Mr. Khalilzad, who also spoke on the same radio show, rejected Mr. 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,” Mr. Khalilzad told BBC Radio 4. In a phone conversation with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on the evening of Aug. 14, Mr. 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 Mr. Khalilzad.

“After agreeing to it, to everyone’s surprise, he and a few others departed,” Mr. Khalilzad said.

Mr. 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 re-elected in 2019. Both elections were marred by widespread fraud.

His government was sidelined from the peace talks after the United States engaged directly with the Taliban, signing a deal with the group in February 2020.

The Taliban intensified attacks on the former government’s forces after President Biden announced in April that the American forces would withdraw from Afghanistan by September. By early summer, the insurgent group controlled more than half of the districts in Afghanistan.

A partly destroyed poster of Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan president, in Kabul in August three days after he fled the country.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

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 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 Mr. Ghani, who had shown little interest in engaging in serious negotiations with them.

Mr. Ghani departed Kabul in the early afternoon of Aug. 15, boarding helicopters parked at the presidential palace. The helicopters landed in neighboring 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 Mr. 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. Mr. Mohib and Mr. Fazly were the most powerful officials after the president.

As the news of Mr. 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 centralized 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.

Wali Arian contributed reporting.

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