Celebratory gunfire resounded across Kabul on Tuesday as Taliban fighters took control of the airport before dawn, following the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, marking the end of a 20-year war that left the Islamist militia stronger than it was in 2001.
Shaky video footage distributed by the Taliban showed fighters entering the airport after the last U.S. 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 U.S. soldier, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Major General Chris Donahue, to step aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul.
Reacting to the development, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told a news conference at the airport after the departure the the event was historical for the fighters victory.
“It is a historical day and a historical moment. We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power,” he said. America’s longest war took the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. 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 as a base by al Qaeda to attack the United States, it ended with the hardline Islamist militants controlling more territory than during their previous rule.
Those years from 1996 to 2001 saw the Taliban’s brutal enforcement of their strict interpretation of Islamic law, and the world watches now to see if the movement forms a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.
Thousands of Afghans have already fled, fearing Taliban reprisals. More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the United States and its allies over the past two weeks, but tens of thousands who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.
A contingent of Americans, estimated by U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, as fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.
The British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, put the number of UK nationals in Afghanistan in the low hundreds, following the evacuation of some 5,000.
Also, commander of the U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, told a Pentagon briefing that the chief U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie told reporters. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out.”
The leaving U.S. troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft, dozens of armoured vehicles and disabled air defences that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State rocket attack on the eve of their departure.
But as the Taliban watched U.S. troops leave Kabul on Monday night, eight of their fighters were killed in clashes in the Panjshir valley north of the capital, said Fahim Dashti, a spokesman for the recently formed National Resistance Forces.
Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, from local militias, remnants of army and special forces units, have gathered in the valley under the command of regional leader Ahmad Massoud.