Taliban 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.
A 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.
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.
“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.”
Yet he called for friendly ties with the US. “The Islamic Emirate wants a good and diplomatic relationship with the Americans,” Mujahid said.
Standing on the tarmac, Taliban leaders pledged to secure the country, quickly reopen the airport and grant amnesty to former opponents.
In a show of control, turbaned Taliban leaders were flanked by the insurgents’ elite Badri unit as they walked across the tarmac. The commandos in camouflage uniforms proudly posed for photos.
Marine Gen Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. military’s Central Command, earlier said troops disabled 27 Humvees and 73 aircraft so they cannot be used again. He said troops did not blow up equipment needed for eventually restarting airport operations.
Getting the airport running again is just one of the sizeable challenges the Taliban face in governing a nation of 38 million people that for two decades had survived on billions of dollars in foreign aid.
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.
The Taliban brutally enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, not least by oppressing women, and the world is watching 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 capital 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.”
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