The Taliban celebrated a complete victory on Tuesday, achieving a goal they had nurtured for two decades: the exit of the last American soldier from Afghanistan.
Taliban control had been essentially true for days, if not weeks, as entire towns fell to insurgents one by one, and a US military that once flexed its muscles across the country was reduced to overseeing an evacuation. rushed from Kabul airport. .
But on Tuesday, the airport was also in the hands of the Taliban. It provided an irresistible scene – and they took full advantage of it.
“We have been fighting for this day for 20 years: to end this war and this attack by foreigners on us and bring our own Islamic government,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, standing on the tarmac from where the last American plane departed. had left a few hours earlier.
Mr. Mujahid, surrounded by other Taliban officials and fighters from the group’s elite unit, guided reporters on a tour of the abandoned airport, which until the day before had been divided into a civilian party and a military part used by Western coalition forces.
The rubbish told the story of another superpower whose ambitions had been dashed in Afghanistan. This ranged from suitcases and clothing strewn around a now inactive domestic terminal to military vehicles, armored SUVs and even helicopters, which US officials say have been permanently disabled.
More generally, the extensive damage to the airport raised questions about how quickly the facility could be used safely for flights. Almost everything in the terminal had been looted or destroyed, including the conveyor belts. Gangways, passenger gangways and tankers were all broken.
It was not the limited withdrawal from the country that some US officials had envisioned. For the first time in two decades, there are no US government boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
In recent days, there was no longer any talk of a contingent of soldiers who remained there to guard the American embassy and the diplomatic corps. Instead, the embassy has been closed, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said this week that for now, the only official US diplomatic mission in Afghanistan will be based in Qatar.
At the airport on Tuesday, the group’s spokesperson took care to congratulate all the Afghans. “This victory belongs to all of us,” Mujahid said.
But any celebration is likely to be short-lived. It’s up to the Taliban to rule now, and the country they claim is in dire straits.
Afghanistan is deeply impoverished, with a third of its citizens struggling to survive in the face of what the United Nations calls crisis levels of food insecurity, with the prospect that the country could be short of food by one. month. With many government employees no longer showing up for work, basic services like electricity are also under threat.
Afghanistan has long depended on injections of foreign aid, but it is unclear how world leaders will view a government led by the Taliban. Washington froze the Afghan government reserves and the International Monetary Fund blocked its access to emergency reserves.
Mr Mujahid appeared keen to change that on Tuesday.
“I invite you all to come and invest in Afghanistan,” he said. “Your investments will be in good hands. The country will be stable and secure.
As the Taliban strive to form a new government, their forces continue to try to quell armed resistance in parts of the country, notably in the Panjshir Valley. Fighting between the Taliban and government rebels was reported on Tuesday, even as some Taliban officials said they were trying to achieve a negotiated peace with the forces there, including some of the remnants of Afghan special forces.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Many Afghans simply want to leave the country.
Even though the Taliban have worked hard to rebrand themselves as more moderate than they were during their last reign, two decades ago, there have already been worrying signs since they took control of the capital on August 15.
Many Afghans remember the 1990s well, when the Taliban deprived women of basic rights such as education, and encouraged flogging, amputations and mass executions.
After the fall of Kabul just over two weeks ago, more than 123,000 people were evacuated from the country, but with the withdrawal of US forces, the flights ended.
Taliban officials on Tuesday reiterated previous assurances that Afghans with passports and visas would be allowed to leave, regardless of their role during the US occupation. Some Americans – the figure has been estimated to be less than 300 – also remain in Afghanistan, some by choice and others because they were unable to make it to their airports.
Many of the stranded Afghans – thousands, by some estimates – are permanent US residents traveling to Afghanistan when Afghanistan fell at astonishing speed to the Taliban as US forces began to withdraw.
Among them was Samiullah, a Philadelphia resident who waited days and nights with his wife and son outside the Kabul airport in the hope that they could be found a seat on a flight. On Monday, they gave up and returned to their apartment in Kabul.
“All flights are closed,” he said incredulously. “I am scared.”
Taliban leaders have promised the airport will reopen in a few days. But the extensive damage to the remaining buildings, equipment and aircraft left this estimate in doubt. Qatar and Turkey are said to be in talks with the group over whether they would help operate civilian flights from the airport.
It can help Afghans who want to leave, or bring in much-needed humanitarian aid. But for the Taliban, the most immediate problem might be winning over the vast majority of those who remain and fear the weeks and months to come.
“People’s expectations have increased dramatically after the last 20 years of freedom and liberation,” said Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo, Afghanistan’s largest broadcaster. “And the pain is yet to come. Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past? “
Jim Huylebroek reported from Kabul, Afghanistan; Najim Rahim from Mexico City and Eric Nagourney from New York. Reporting was provided by Sharif Hassan from Mexico; Matthieu Aikins, Victor Blue and Jordan Bryon from Kabul; Dan Bilefsky from Seoul; and Lara Jakes from Washington.