Celebratory gunfire resounded across the Afghan capital on Tuesday as the Taliban took control of the airport following the withdrawal of the last US troops, marking the end of a 20-year war that left the Islamist group stronger than it was in 2001.
Shaky video footage distributed by the Taliban showed fighters entering the airport after the last US troops flew out on a C-17 aircraft a minute before midnight, ending a hasty and humiliating exit for Washington and its NATO allies.
“It is a historical day and a historical moment,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference at the airport after the departure. “We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power.”
An image from the Pentagon taken with night-vision optics showed the last US soldier to step aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul – Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
America’s longest war took the lives of nearly 2 500 US troops and an estimated 240 000 Afghans, and cost some $2 trillion.
Although it succeeded in driving the Taliban from power and stopped Afghanistan being used by al Qaeda as a base to attack the United States, it ended with the hardline militants controlling more territory than when they last ruled.
During those years, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban brutally enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law, not least by oppressing women, and the world watches now to see if the movement will form a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.
Long lines formed in Kabul on Tuesday outside banks shuttered since the fall of the city as people tried to get money to pay for increasingly expensive food.
There was a mixture of triumph and elation on the one side as the Taliban celebrated their victory and fear on the other.
“I had to go to the bank with my mother but when I went, the Taliban (were) beating women with sticks,” said a 22-year-old woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.
She said the attack occurred among a crowd outside a branch of the Azizi Bank next to the Kabul Star Hotel in the centre of the capital.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that and it really frightened me.”
Thousands of Afghans have already fled the country, fearing Taliban reprisals.
More than 123 000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the United States and its allies over the past two weeks, but many of those who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.
A contingent of Americans, estimated by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab put the number of UK nationals in Afghanistan in the low hundreds, following the evacuation of some 5 000.
‘Lot of heartbreak’
General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that the chief US diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie told reporters. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out.”
The departing US troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft and dozens of armoured vehicles. They also disabled air defences that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State rocket attack on the eve of their departure.
As the Taliban watched US troops leave Kabul on Monday night, eight of their fighters were killed in clashes in the Panjshir valley north of the capital, said Fahim Dashti, a spokesman for the recently formed National Resistance Forces.
Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, from local militias as well as remnants of army and special forces units, have gathered in the valley under the command of regional leader Ahmad Massoud.
US President Joe Biden defended his decision to stick to Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline. He said the world would hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for those wanting to leave Afghanistan.
Biden has said the United States long ago achieved the objectives it set in 2001, when it ousted the Taliban for harbouring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the 11 September attacks.
But he has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and some fellow Democrats for his actions since the Taliban took over Kabul this month after a lightning advance and the collapse of the US-backed government.
Blinken said the United States was prepared to work with the new Taliban government if it did not carry out reprisals against opponents.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said the group wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the United States, despite the two decades of hostility.
“The Islamic Emirate wants to have good diplomatic relations with the whole world,” he said.
The Taliban must now revive a war-shattered economy without the foreign aid running into billions of dollars that had flowed to the previous ruling elite and fed systemic corruption.
The Taliban must now revive a war-shattered economy without the benefit of billions of dollars of foreign aid, even though much of this had flowed into the pockets of the ruling elite and fed systemic corruption.
People living outside the cities face what UN officials have called a catastrophic humanitarian situation, worsened by a severe drought.