Kabul: The Taliban celebrated their total return to power Tuesday with both gunfire and diplomacy. This happened, after the last US troops flew out of Afghanistan to end two decades of war. The United States’ longest military conflict drew to a close Monday night when its forces abandoned the Hamid Karzai International Airport here. During this period, the forces had supervised a frenzied airlift that saw more than 1,23,000 people flee life under the Taliban.
The moment the last flight took off, Taliban fighters quickly entered the airport. They fired weapons into the sky across the city 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 spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters early Tuesday morning on the runway of the airport. Mujahid added that 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. This period is infamous for their treatment of girls and women, as well as a brutal justice system.
However the Taliban since recapturing Kabul have repeatedly promised a more tolerant and open brand of rule compared with their first stint in power. Mujahid continued that theme. “We want to have good relations with the US and the world. We welcome good diplomatic relations with them all. We don’t want the Taliban soil a promotional ground for terror,” asserted Mujahid. He insisted Taliban security forces would ‘be gentle and nice’.
The withdrawal of the US troops came just before the August 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden to end the war. It was a battle that claimed the lives of more than tens of thousands of Afghans and over 2,400 American service members.
The slightly early finish followed a threat from the regional offshoot of the Islamic State (IS) group. They are rivals of the Taliban and were preparing to attack the US forces at the airport.
Thirteen US troops were among more than 100 people killed when an IS suicide bomber late last week attacked the perimeter of the airport. At that time desperate Afghans had massed in the hope of getting on board an evacuation flight.
Biden said he would address the nation Tuesday in Washington, as his critics continued to savage him for his handling of the withdrawal. “We can’t fight endless wars, but the scope and consequence of Biden’s failure here is staggering,” Republican Senator Rick Scott said.
Biden’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was able to offer little more than stern words for the Taliban. “Any legitimacy and any support will have to be earned,” Blinken said. 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 Afghanistan. There will be a sharp focus on whether they will allow free departure for those wanting to leave – including some foreigners.
Blinken said a small number of US citizens still remained in Afghanistan, ‘under 200’ but likely closer to just 100.
Talks are ongoing as to who will now run Kabul airport. 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.
The departure of the US cargo planes marked the end of a massive airlift. “The last five aircraft have left, it’s over!” said Hemad Sherzad, a Taliban fighter stationed at Kabul’s international airport. “I cannot express my happiness in words. Our 20 years of sacrifice worked.”
However, in Washington, General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command acknowledged the completion of America’s longest war and the evacuation effort. He said the last aircraft left the Kabul airport at around 11.59pm (Afghanistan time) – one minute before midnight Monday in Kabul.””We however, did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” he said.
The future of women in Afghanistan however, now appears bleak. Women, who had been largely confined to their homes under the Taliban’s hard-line rule, benefitted from access to education and came to assume prominent roles in public life.
However, it was Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump who had signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020. It paved the way for the withdrawal. President Joe Biden extended the deadline from May to August and continued with the pullout despite the Taliban’s rapid blitz across the country earlier this month.
Now the Taliban control all of Afghanistan except for the mountainous Panjshir province. There a few thousand local fighters and remnants of Afghanistan’s collapsed security forces have pledged to resist them. The Taliban say they are seeking a peaceful resolution there.
McKenzie said the Taliban were ‘significantly helpful’ in enabling the airlift. He however, pointed out that the Taliban will have difficulty securing Kabul in the coming days. This is because of the threat they face from IS. He said the Taliban had freed IS fighters from prisons, swelling their ranks to an estimated 2,000. “Now they are going to be able to reap what they sowed,” the American general said.