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WASHINGTON – Taliban fighters marched into Afghanistan's capital city on Sunday, signaling a collapse of the Afghan government two decades after the U.S. invaded the country in the "war on terrorism."
The swift fall of the capital city came as the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan, despite the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and NATO to build up Afghan security forces.
By Monday, U.S. troops had evacuated the American embassy to the Kabul airport. The scene at the airport rapidly deteriorated as civilians frantically attempted to flee as the capitol city was taken over by the Taliban.
U.S. Embassy: Airport under fire, U.S. citizens should shelter in place.
Kabul’s collapse had been expected, but the speed in which it happened stunned U.S. officials. Just last week, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
Here's what we know:
How did the Taliban retake Afghanistan so quickly?
For years, U.S. and Afghan forces focused on controlling key supply chains and major cities in the country, forcing the Taliban into Afghanistan’s rugged hinterland. The Taliban remained strong in the country’s mountainous rural areas, using those regions as bases of attack to seize territory once US forces began their drawdown.
The Taliban also remained in control of strategic border crossings, according to the Associated Press, allowing them to smuggle weapons and other key goods while also rejuvenating forces outside the country.
The Taliban started a sweeping military offensive across Afghanistan in May. Once Taliban forces began taking regional capitals in August, a sense of panic and a collapse of morale also overtook many in the Afghan military, aiding the Taliban’s advance.
The disintegration of the Afghan government’s control of the country came at a breakneck pace in recent days. At the start of August, the Taliban controlled none of the country’s provincial capitals. Now, they are in possession of a majority of those cities and most of the country’s territory.
U.S. sending more troops
The Pentagon authorized an additional 1,000 U.S. troops to be deployed to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation efforts. That is on top of the deployment of 5,000 troops that President Joe Biden announced Saturday would be sent to ensure "an orderly and safe" drawdown and evacuate U.S. personnel as well as Afghans who helped American forces.
Was Afghanistan withdrawal Trump or Biden? Both
The decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan was part of an agreement former President Donald Trump forged with the Taliban in February 2020. Under that deal, the U.S. agreed to withdraw all its forces. In exchange, the Taliban promised to sever its ties with al-Qaida and end its attacks on American forces. The Trump administration began a drawdown of U.S. forces, and about 2,500 U.S. troops remained by the time he left office.
When Biden took office, he decided to go ahead with plans to end U.S. involvement in the war but delayed the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Biden initially said he would withdraw all U.S. forces from the country by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of 9/11. He later moved up the withdrawal date to Aug. 31, arguing the time had come to end America’s longest war.
Administration officials said Biden made the decision after concluding Afghanistan was “unwinnable war” and one that “does not have a military solution.”
While most U.S. troops left the country in July, the military continued airstrikes against the Taliban as the insurgency’s advance became clear.
Why was the U.S. in Afghanistan?
The U.S. had troops in Afghanistan since October 2001 under President George W. Bush after the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York and the Pentagon just outside of Washington. The U.S. sought the al-Qaida militants who had planned the attack there and received support from the Taliban.
What about Russia and Afghanistan?
The U.S. and Russia have a long, tangled history in Afghanistan, stretching back to the Cold War.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a communist-led government there, leading to alarm among American officials who eventually decided to intervene. During the Reagan administration, the U.S. helped resistance fighters known as the mujahideen, sending them anti-aircraft missiles and other assistance.
In part, because of America's involvement, the Afghan conflict became a quagmire for the Soviet Union, costing Moscow billions of dollars and dealing a blow to the reputation of its Red Army. Russia finally withdrew its forces in the late 1980s.
The war left more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers dead.
Over the past several years, Russia has supported the Taliban. In 2020, it was revealed that Russia may have paid bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Taliban enters Kabul
Taliban fighters marched into the Afghan capital on Sunday and sought the unconditional surrender of the central government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban said it would move further into Kabul.
Taliban negotiators were in Kabul to discuss the transfer of power, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. It remained unclear when that transfer would take place and who among the Taliban was negotiating.
The Al-Jazeera network broadcast footage of Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace, sitting behind a desk that the network presumed was Ghani's and placing their guns on it.
On Sunday evening, a joint statement from the State and Defense departments said the U.S. is working to secure Kabul's airport to allow for departures, and would take over air traffic control with added troops on the ground.
"Tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals. And we will accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas, nearly 2,000 of whom have already arrived in the United States over the past two weeks," the statement said.
U.S. personnel await evacuation
The U.S. Embassy's warning for Americans to shelter in place came as the military had been seeking to evacuate all diplomatic staff from the embassy to the airport.
The skies of Kabul had been filled with helicopters ferrying mostly American and allied workers to evacuation sites. Military helicopters shuttled between the embassy compound and the airport, where a core presence is expected to remain for as long as possible given security conditions.
U.S. officials are in ongoing negotiations with Taliban negotiators in Doha to ensure safe passage for Americans exiting the country. The embassy will close once all U.S. personnel have been evacuated.
“We have conveyed to the Taliban reps in Doha that any action on their part that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk will be met with a swift & strong (Department of Defense) response,” the U.S. embassy in Kabul wrote on Twitter.
Michael Collins and Matthew Brown cover the White House. Follow Collins on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS and Brown @mrbrownsir.
Contributing: The Associated Press; Courtney Subramanian and Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kabul and Taliban: What to know about US withdrawal from Afghanistan