Former Afghan president explains his quick departure from Kabul as Taliban closed in

Afghan president-elect Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaks in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 22, 2014. (AP/ Rahmat Gul)

The former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, spoke to media for the first time since abandoning Kabul last year in the moments before the Taliban conquered the city, telling the BBC in an interview broadcast on Thursday that leaving was the hardest decision he’d had to make.

He said that even in the hours before he boarded a helicopter and was flown away, he didn’t know it would be his last day in his homeland.

He told BBC’s Radio 4 that had he taken a stand, the New York Times quoted him saying on the program, the presidential palace security guards would have been killed.

“And they were not capable of defending me,” he said.

The Taliban had largely surrounded Kabul and fear was growing in the capital when Ghani, his wife and close associates, fled on the afternoon of Aug. 15. He has since been in exile in the United Arab Emirates.

The Taliban, in talks with the government in the fall of 2020, had demanded that Ghani relinquish his position as president to allow for their new government — but Ghani refused. They had established principles and procedures for the peace negotiations, but the talks stalled after months of bureaucratic hangups and escalating violence.

Alongside Ghani in the helicopter were his No. 1 and No. 2 aides, National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib and Director of the Administrative Office Fazel Mahmood Fazly.

Ghani said he was not given “more than two minutes” on Aug. 15 to get ready to leave, and denied stealing millions of dollars as he fled.

Ghani’s original plan had been to evacuate to Khost, a southeastern province, where the CIA-backed Khost Protection Force was based. But alternate plans had to be made as Khost had already fallen to the insurgents.

Today, he fights the criticisms that he abandoned his nation at a crucial time.

“I had to sacrifice myself in order to save Kabul,” he said.

But Afghanis were saying he had betrayed the people he had led for nearly eight years.

In the interview, Ghani expanded on an apology, written in English, that he posted on Twitter in September. (His Twitter account still lists him as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, but has been active only three times since, with the last tweet being on Oct. 25. The BBC interview has not been mentioned.)

Also on the BBC program was then-U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the deal with the Taliban. (He left the government’s employ last November.) He rejected Ghani’s statement about his escape, blaming him and the leaders of his 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, saying Ghani confirmed with Secretary of State Antony Blinken by phone on the evening of Aug. 14 that he would take part in an orderly transition of power. Khalilzad said the call confirmed that Ghani would attend a legal assembly known as a loya jirga, to take place on Aug. 30.

“After agreeing to it, to everyone’s surprise, he and a few others departed” the next day, Khalilzad said. The power vacuum they created, which was deepened by even more government escapees following, offered the Taliban a strong hold on the country.

And, despite their early avowals to modernize their rule, the Taliban have reverted to type. The country’s economic health is dire. Millions of its citizens are going hungry, and a million children could starve to death this winter .

The Taliban, remarkably, captured all 33 provincial capitals and Kabul in less than two weeks, without much resistance.

Observers in the West contend that had Ghani not abandoned Afghans but agreed to an orderly transition of power, the situation could now be different, that he derailed the last-minute deal that could have prevented the complete takeover and the resulting sanctions.

But Ghani still blamed the U.S. for negotiating directly with the Taliban.

“They erased us,” he said.

“Ambassador Khalilzad sat down with them,” he said. “It became an American issue. Not an Afghan issue.”