The extreme Islamist Taliban celebrated their return to total power on Tuesday with gunfire and diplomacy, after the last US troops flew out of Afghanistan. The departure of the United States marks the end of a war that raged for two decades.
This was the longest military conflict in the history of the United States. The US military forces abandoned the Kabul airport, where it had overseen a frenzied airlift that saw more than 123,000 people flee the country and life under the Taliban.
Taliban fighters quickly swept into the airport and fired weapons into the sky and across the city of Kabul in jubilation – an astonishing return after US forces invaded in 2001 and toppled them for supporting Al-Qaeda.
“Congratulations to Afghanistan… this victory belongs to us all,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters hours later on the runway of the airport.
Mujahid also said the Taliban’s victory was a “lesson for other invaders”.
Many Afghans are terrified of a repeat of the Taliban’s initial rule from 1996-2001, which was infamous for their cruel treatment of girls and women, as well as a brutal justice system. The Taliban have however repeatedly promised a more tolerant and open brand of rule compared with their first stint in power, and Mujahid continued that theme.
“We want to have good relations with the US and the world. We welcome good diplomatic relations with them all,” he said.
Mujahid also insisted Taliban security forces would “be gentle and nice”.
The withdrawal came shortly before the 31 August deadline set by President Joe Biden to end the war. The two-decade war claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and over 2,400 American service members.
The early finish followed a threat from the regional offshoot of the Islamic State group, rivals of the Taliban, to attack the US forces at the airport. Thirteen US troops were among more than 100 people killed when an IS suicide bomber attacked the perimeter of the airport late last week.
Their victory came after President Joe Biden withdrew nearly all American troops and then was forced to send back about 6,000 more to conduct the airlift. Biden said he would address the nation on Tuesday in Washington.
“We can’t fight endless wars, but the scope & consequence of Biden’s failure here is staggering,” Republican Senator Rick Scott said.
“Any legitimacy and any support will have to be earned,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken Blinken said, as he announced the United States had suspended its diplomatic presence in Kabul and shifted its operations to Qatar.
All eyes will now turn to how the Taliban handles its first few days with sole authority over the country. The sharp focus will be on whether it will allow free departure for those wanting to leave – including some foreigners.
Many thousands of Afghans who had worked with the US-backed government over the years and now fear retribution from the Taliban also want to flee the country. Western allies have voiced heartbreak in recent days that not all Afghans who wanted to flee could get on the available evacuation flights.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution Monday, which requires the Taliban to honour a commitment to let people freely leave Afghanistan in the days ahead, and to grant access to the UN and other aid agencies.
The control of the airport is still uncertain. The Taliban have asked Turkey to handle logistics while they maintain control of security, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not yet accepted that offer. It was not immediately clear which airlines would agree to fly in and out of Kabul after the Taliban’s return to power.
The regional Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group had posed the biggest threat to the withdrawal of US forces after it carried out the devastating suicide bombing outside the airport last week. They also claimed on Monday to have fired six rockets at the airport. A Taliban official said the attack was intercepted by the airport’s missile defence systems.