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'Widespread Panic' As Taliban Enters Afghan Capital

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been a dramatic day in Afghanistan, as Taliban fighters entered the capital city of Kabul and then effectively took control of the country. The Afghan president has fled. His government appears to have collapsed with a speed that has stunned observers. The Afghan army proved unable to resist the Taliban's rapid advances.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Meanwhile, U.S. troops are rushing to evacuate Americans and Afghans who work with the U.S. military as quickly as possible. We have a lot to get to this hour as the situation in Afghanistan continues to evolve rapidly. And we're going to begin with the latest from the capital. PBS NewsHour correspondent Jane Ferguson is in Kabul and joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

JANE FERGUSON: Thanks for having me.

GONYEA: What are you seeing on the streets of Kabul right now?

FERGUSON: Well, right now, there's a curfew imposed by the Taliban. So I'm not personally seeing anything. But the - a few hours ago, when I was last in the streets, I was traveling from the city's center towards the airport area in a car. And that was when we saw the Taliban fighters enter the city.

It was a remarkable sight because you could see Taliban fighters, just a few of them with guns and many of them without, traveling in cars, in pickup vehicles - pickup trucks and often intermingling almost in the street with ANDSF, with the Afghan National Security Forces. Absolutely surreal, given that these are two warring sides and sworn enemies until recently. So you can see that kind of almost cooperation but at least a certain agreement to not attack one another.

So the situation right now is very tense in the city tonight because effectively, although the president has fled and the government has collapsed and technically the Taliban are moving in, it's still not official. The city is still not really run by anyone right now. And I think that's making people extremely nervous. There have been widespread reports of the Taliban implementing their curfew with checkpoints. The Taliban themselves said they were sending their troops in, or their fighters in, to prevent looting and to maintain law and order.

GONYEA: And what about the U.S. evacuation? What can you tell us about that?

FERGUSON: Absolutely tragic scenes are coming up on social media and being shared widely from Kabul International Airport right now. There's a flight tonight to assemble that was supposed to hold several hundred people. And it's believed that over 1,000 people showed up and tried to get on it.

Multiple sources have said that civilians, people, are trying to get on the very, very last commercial flights getting out. And they're standing on the tarmac. That's causing enormous difficulty in trying to get flights to take off...

GONYEA: And...

FERGUSON: ...Because people are desperate.

GONYEA: And what is the reaction from people across Kabul as they deal with just how quickly the city fell under Taliban control?

FERGUSON: It's absolute fear. No one - everyone knew pressure was coming. But no one knew how fast. You know, I was talking to contacts and connections, people who had worked as interpreters, people who had worked in - as journalists just days ago. And visas had come through for them. And we were all jubilant. But they hadn't yet managed to get on a plane. But it wasn't - it didn't feel this imminent.

Now I'm talking to people who have visas or who are, you know, further along in the visa process. But they don't have a flight, so it feels to them, like, completely useless. There's a widespread panic for people who are trying to get out and a real sense that they're going to be left behind. I've spoken with people who are at the airport right now who can't get on a flight. But if they turn around and go back home, they face Taliban checkpoints.

GONYEA: In the minute we've got...

FERGUSON: It's an impossible position.

GONYEA: In the minute we've got left, you've covered Afghanistan for years now. What's your reaction to everything that's happened just in the past week?

FERGUSON: It's absolutely astounding, the pace of everything. I don't think anybody thought that the Taliban, at least in the last 10, 12 years, could realistically ever be defeated. But the idea that everything that has been invested in Afghanistan could collapse so quickly in terms of government institutions and the military is something that not even - like, zero experts could have predicted that it would fall this fast.

And right now, there's just a sense that everything is so incredibly surreal. To look down the street and see Taliban fighters walking down the street in Kabul is - it's very hard to put into words how surreal the situation is. We've seen video footage of the Taliban leadership entering the ARG, the presidential palace in the center of Kabul, flying the Taliban flag. And it's really, really, really remarkable to watch this moment in history and one that I know many Afghans will be very, very fearful of as they sit down tonight and wonder, will there be...

GONYEA: We're...

FERGUSON: ...Retribution?

GONYEA: All right.

FERGUSON: How will the Taliban behave as leaders?

GONYEA: We're going to have to cut it there, Jane. Thank you for being there. Jane Ferguson, correspondent with the PBS NewsHour, speaking to us from Kabul. Thanks.

KELLY: All right.

FERGUSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.