KABUL, Afghanistan â€” As the Taliban stood at the gates of Kabul on Sunday, completing the near total takeover of Afghanistan two decades after the American military drove them from power, an eerie quiet that had enveloped the city in recent days transformed into chaos.
A frenzied evacuation of U.S. diplomats and civilians kicked into high gear, while Afghans made a mad dash to the banks, their homes and the airport. Crowds of people ran down the streets as the sound of gunfire echoed in downtown Kabul.
Helicopter after helicopter â€” including massive Chinooks with their twin engines, and speedy Black Hawks that had been the workhorse of the grinding war â€” touched down and then took off loaded with passengers. Some dispensed flares overhead, a new addition to Kabulâ€™s skyline.
Those being evacuated included a core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul, according to a senior administration official. They were being moved to a compound at the international airport, where they would stay for an unspecified amount of time, the official said.
The tarmac of the airport was filled with a constellation of uniforms from different nations. They joined contractors, diplomats and civilians all trying to catch a flight out of the city. Those who were eligible to fly were given special bracelets, denoting their status as noncombatants.
For millions of Afghans, including tens of thousands who assisted the U.S. efforts in the country for years, there were no bracelets. They were stuck in the city.
Rumors abounded: The Taliban were in the city, or werenâ€™t they? Were the Americans securing the palace?
The streets of the city were packed, and many shops were closed. Traffic barely moved.
At one bank in downtown Kabul, a mass of hundreds of people swelled outside, clambering to get in once doors opened. At one point, two men tried to climb a barred gate into the building.
At Abdul Haq Square in the center of the capital, five men who appeared to be Taliban fighters gathered as cars drove by showing their support for the militants.
Two other men, outside the American Embassy, said that they had just been freed by the Taliban from the giant Pul-e-Charkhi Prison.
On one street downtown, a pair of police officers said that they were readying for a fight with the Taliban and had changed into militia clothing. Another group of officers, none with weapons, seemed more curious about whether a house in the once coveted and protected green zone was now empty.
Some police officers appeared to have abandoned their usual checkpoints, leading to speculation that the government was no longer in control.
At a bus station in Kabul, members of the Afghan security forces were seen changing into civilian clothes as they waited for transport to their hometowns.
While President Biden has defended his decision to hold firm and pull the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, his administration has become increasingly worried about images that could evoke a foreign policy disaster of the past: the fall of Saigon at the end of the conflict in Vietnam in 1975.
The swift advance of the Taliban has stunned many in the White House.
On Sunday, as a sense of panic gripped Kabul, guards at checkpoints inside the fortified green zone, who typically stop vehicles and check identity cards, lifted their metal barriers and waved all the cars through as the neighborhood drained of foreigners.
Convoys of armored vehicles raced to find safety in the headquarters of what had been the NATO center for its Operation Resolute Support. Others flocked to the Serena Hotel, a heavily fortified hotel popular among foreigners.
At the NATO center, military personnel handed out matchbox-size cardboard containers with ear plugs, and corralled people onto the helicopters. As the aircraft took off for the international airport, dozens of people evacuating got their last glimpses of the capital below â€” the fate of the city hanging in the balance.
Two Marines, standing by the tarmac at the Kabul airport, acknowledged that they were living a moment of history. A little earlier, they said, someone walked by after exiting one of the helicopters cradling a poorly folded American flag: It had just come down off the embassy.
Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Christina Goldbaum, Sharif Hassan, Jim Huylebroek, Najim Rahimand Lara Jakes contributed reporting.