Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi / AP
KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban fighters watched the last American planes disappear into the skies over Afghanistan around midnight Monday, then fired in the air, celebrating victory after 20 years of insurgency that brought out the most powerful army in the world from one of the poorest. countries.
The departure of US cargo planes marked the end of a massive airlift in which tens of thousands fled Afghanistan fearing the return of the Taliban regime after militants took control of most of the country and entered the capital earlier this month.
“The last five planes have left, it’s over!” said Hemad Sherzad, a Taliban fighter stationed at Kabul International Airport. “I cannot express my happiness in words. … Our 20 years of sacrifice have worked.”
In Washington, General Frank McKenzie, head of the United States Central Command, announced the end of America’s longest war and the evacuation effort, saying the last planes had taken off from Kabul airport. at 3:29 p.m. EDT – one minute before midnight Monday in Kabul.
“We didn’t get everyone out that we wanted to get out,” he said.
With the departure of its last troops, the United States ended its 20-year war with the return of the Taliban to power. Many Afghans still fear their rule or new instability, and there have been sporadic reports of killings and other abuses in areas under Taliban control despite the group’s pledges to restore peace and security.
“American soldiers have left Kabul airport and our nation has gained full independence,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday morning.
The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, orchestrated by al-Qaida while taking shelter under the Taliban. The invasion ousted the Taliban from power within weeks and dispersed Osama bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda leaders.
The United States and its allies have launched an ambitious effort to rebuild Afghanistan after decades of war, investing billions of dollars in Western-style government and security forces. Women, who had been largely confined to their homes under the intransigent Taliban regime, were granted access to education and came to assume prominent roles in public life.
But the Taliban never left.
In the years to come, as the United States focused on yet another troubled war in Iraq and the Afghan government bogged down in corruption, the Taliban regrouped in the countryside and in neighboring Pakistan. In recent years, they have captured large parts of rural Afghanistan and have carried out almost daily assaults on Afghan security forces.
Eager to end the war, the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that 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, with the exception of the mountainous province of Panjshir, where a few thousand local fighters and remnants of the Afghan security forces have pledged to resist them. The Taliban say they are looking for a peaceful solution there.
They face far more serious challenges now as they rule one of the poorest and most war-ravaged nations on Earth.
In recent days, Afghans have lined up at banks as an economic crisis predating the Taliban takeover deepens. A series of attacks by the local affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State, including a barrage of rockets fired at the airport on Monday, shows the security challenges facing the Taliban.
An Islamic State suicide bombing attack at an airport gate on Thursday killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US servicemen. The extremist group is far more radical than the Taliban, and the two groups have clashed before. The Taliban say they will prevent Afghanistan from being used again as a base for terrorist attacks, a commitment that will likely be tested soon.
McKenzie said the Taliban had been “considerably helpful” in enabling the airlift, but that they will struggle to secure Kabul in the coming days, especially given the threat they face from ISIS. He said the Taliban freed IS fighters from prisons, swelling their ranks to around 2,000.
“Now they will be able to reap what they sowed,” said the American general.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban themselves, who ruled the country under a harsh interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001. During those years, they banned television and music, banned women from going to school or work outside the home and carried out public executions.
The Taliban have sought to project a more moderate image since the takeover. They say women will be able to go to school and work, and have renounced any revenge attack on Afghans who worked with the former government, the United States or its allies.
Many Afghans are deeply skeptical of such promises, and fear of the Taliban regime has driven tens of thousands of people to flee the country in the past two weeks. Thousands more waited in vain outside the airport, many of them standing for hours in a sewer canal.
Kabul International Airport had been one of the few exits. At one point, people invaded the tarmac and seven died after clinging to a taking off plane. Seven others died in a stampede of people outside an airport gate.
The Taliban have said they will allow normal travel, but it’s unclear how they will handle the airport and which commercial carriers will start flying, given security concerns.
Qatar, a close ally of the United States that has long housed a Taliban political office, has participated in negotiations on operations at the airport with Afghan and international parties, mainly the United States and Turkey. Qatar’s Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwa al-Khater said his main priority was to restore regular operations while maintaining security at the airport.
The last known US military operation in Afghanistan took place on Sunday, when US officials said a drone strike detonated a vehicle carrying ISIS suicide bombers planning to attack the airport.
But like so many others about the war in Afghanistan, it may not have gone as planned.
Relatives of those killed in Sunday’s strike said it killed civilians who had nothing to do with the extremist group.
Najibullah Ismailzada said his brother-in-law, Zemarai Ahmadi, had just returned from his job for a Korean charity. As he walked into the garage, his children came out to greet him, and that’s when the missile hit.
“We have lost 10 members of our family,” said Ismailzada, including six children aged 2 to 8. He said another relative, Naser Nejrabi, a former Afghan army soldier and former US military interpreter, was also killed, along with two teenagers.
US officials have acknowledged reports of civilian casualties without confirming them.
Hours before the end of the pullout, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. military was taking steps to avoid civilian casualties in the targeted strikes.
“Of course the loss of life anywhere is horrible, and it impacts families no matter where they live, in the United States or around the world,” she said.