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. Image Credit: AP

Washington: 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 defence of his actions since the government’s collapse in August.

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

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,” Ghani explained. “And the possibility of a massive conflict between them that would destroy the city of 5 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 Ghani’s escape and the collapse of his security forces.

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

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.

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 reelected in 2019. His government was sidelined from the peace talks after the Trump administration engaged directly with the Taliban, signing a deal with the group in February 2020 that called for U.S. troops to withdraw in 2021.

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