KABUL, Afghanistan – It was 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12. The U.S. bombing had been punishing. The fighting outside Kabul was intense. In the capital, the Taliban decided it was time to go.
The Islamic militia's hierarchy in the capital called the decisive meeting. About a dozen men in turbans and beards gathered in the dimly lit sitting room of Mullah Mohammed Hassan, the Taliban prime minister and second-most powerful man in the religious movement.
Their situation was pressing. Less than six miles away, American bombs were blasting Taliban defenses, and the Northern Alliance tanks were being ordered to encircle the city.
What unfolded next was recounted in detail in a recent interview by Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, a Taliban official who said he was called to the meeting by a leadership that didn't know he had been in secret contact with the Northern Alliance for months.
Publicly, the Taliban were defiant, vowing to fight to the death to defend the capital they had held for five years.
But behind the bravado, Taliban government ministers had already been planning their escape, Khaqzar said.
Days before, they had quietly stacked old couches, beds, and other furniture onto trucks and sent them south toward Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold.
Shortly after sundown, key Taliban figures gathered at Hassan's house in the Wazir Akbar Khan district. Interior Minister Abdul Razzak was there along with Khaqzar, his deputy. So were Qadratullah Jamal, the culture and information minister, and Mullah Mohammed Abbas, the health minister.
Also present was Abbas' deputy, Sher Mohammed Stanikzai, a small man with a wispy black beard who spoke perfect English and was often put forward by the Taliban to talk to Western visitors.
The decision was taken by consensus, Khaqzar said — the Taliban would leave Kabul by night.
The leaders agreed to meet again four hours later at a small place called Durrani in Wardak province south of Kabul, Khaqzar said.
There was no time to waste. Ethnic Tajik troops from the Northern Alliance were advancing from the north; a Shiite Muslim faction was coming from the southwest. The mullahs had to make sure they would get past the town of Maidan Shahr, capital of Wardak province about 20 miles south of Kabul, before the Shiites cut the escape route.
Khaqzar said the Arab allies from Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement were not present at the Kabul meeting. He said their leaders had gathered separately for a meeting with a representative of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former U.S. ally of the United States in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
"Haqqani was in charge of the Arabs and it was his man who told them to leave Kabul," Khaqzar said.
Initially, plans called for the Taliban and Al Qaeda to establish new front lines to the south and southwest of Kabul — at Durrani and at Sang-e-Nowishta.
Once the decision was taken, the mullahs left to spread the word that it was time to leave the city. Taliban leaders began heading out of the capital shortly after the meeting broke up.
Those who had already shipped their personal belongings drove straight from Mullah Hassan's house to the road out of town, Khaqzar said.
When word trickled to the front line that the leaders were leaving, fighters clambered aboard trucks to join the escape. Some even drove away in their tanks.
As the Taliban left, they ran into intense American airstrikes, Khaqzar said. The fallback front quickly collapsed, and by 1 a.m., seven hours after the Kabul meeting, the Taliban were scattered and fleeing farther south and southwest.
The next morning the Northern Alliance entered Kabul.
The whereabouts of other officials at the last meeting in Kabul are not known, making it impossible to obtain firsthand corroboration of Khaqzar's account. But it is detailed, and some of its details correspond with what is known about that night.
Khaqzar said he stayed in Kabul while the others went to Wardak province, and he did not see them again.
He said he had grown disillusioned with the Taliban because of the growing influence of bin Laden and the Arab warriors, and their refusal to negotiate an end to the relentless war, and had made contact with the Northern Alliance. This ensured his safety once the alliance took over the city.
Khaqzar has said previously that he was especially angered when the Taliban blew up two giant carvings of Buddha hewn into a cliff face more than 1,500 years ago. Defying international outcry, the Islamic militia said the carvings in the central Bamiyan Valley were idolatrous and offensive to Islam.