Taliban leaders declared victory over the United States from the tarmac of Kabul airport on Tuesday, hours after the withdrawal of the last American troops left Afghanistan in the grip of the militant group.
The airport that in recent weeks had been the epicenter of a frantic Western evacuation mission was transformed into a stage for Taliban celebrations after the final US plane departed just before midnight on Monday, bringing an end to America’s longest war.
Videos showed Taliban fighters filling the night air with gunfire and walking through the airport. As the sun rose on Tuesday, footage showed the militants making their way through an abandoned hanger strewn with equipment the US left behind.
In one video, militants dressed in US-style uniforms and holding US-made weapons examined a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter parked inside a hangar. Taliban fighters were also seen posing for photographs while sitting in the cockpits of planes and helicopters that once belonged to the Afghan Air Force.
But Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told CNN Tuesday he wasn’t “overly concerned about these images” of Taliban fighters examining the abandoned aircraft.
“They can inspect all they want,” Kirby said. “They can look at them, they can walk around – but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them.”
He added that the US military had made “unusable all the gear that is at the airport – all the aircraft, all the ground vehicles.
“The only thing that we left operable is a couple of fire trucks and some fork lifts, so that the airport itself can remain more operational going forward,” he said.
Victory and uncertainty
On Tuesday morning, Afghanistan’s roughly 38 million people woke to a new phase of the Taliban’s takeover of the country for the first time since the 1990s, when it imposed a barbaric interpretation of Sharia law that banned girls from school, stoned women for adultery, and plunged the country into economic crisis.
The Taliban have pledged to govern more moderately this time around, and said they would still allow foreign nationals and Afghans with proper documentation to leave the country after August 31. But many Afghans are skeptical of their claims, and huge question marks hang over the Taliban’s ability to run the country.
Standing on the airport runway on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a small crowd that: “This victory belongs to us all.”
He was joined by heavily armed fighters from the Taliban’s Badri 313 special forces brigade, kitted out in camouflage uniforms and desert boots.
Mujahid congratulated the Taliban fighters lined up, and indeed “the whole of the nation.” He said the Taliban wanted to have “good relations with the US and the world,” and promised that Afghanistan would not be used as a launchpad for attacks.
“No death will be caused to anyone outside of Afghanistan…we will not allow anyone to use Afghanistan against them,” he added.
The Taliban’s retaking of Afghanistan has sparked concerns internationally that the country may be used to harbor jihadist activity.
Al Qaeda central’s media arm, As-Sahab, released a statement Tuesday congratulating the Taliban’s “great victory” in Afghanistan, hailing the militant group’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada for “breaking America’s back.” The statement added that the US and NATO’s “Afghan debacle marks the beginning of the end of the dark era of Western hegemony and military occupation of Islamic lands.”
The Taliban has also received praise from Islamist groups such as the al Qaeda affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Pakistani Taliban, which has renewed allegiance to the group, according to a statement shared with CNN.
An al Qaeda spokesperson said in April it was planning to return to Afghanistan after US forces leave.
Airport a lifeline
An immediate challenge for the Taliban will be securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, a vital lifeline to the rest of the world – both for Afghans and foreign nationals wanting to leave, and for aid to get in.
Afghanistan is heavily reliant on foreign aid, and the WHO and UNICEF have already struggled to get critical food and medical supplies to the airport amid the mass evacuation operation.
Even before the political upheaval of recent weeks, Afghanistan represented the world’s third-largest humanitarian concern, with over 18 million people requiring assistance, according to UNICEF. But with no commercial aircraft currently permitted to land in Kabul, getting aid in will be difficult.
Restarting commercial flights will also be crucial for people still wanting to leave the country but who did not make it onto military evacuation planes.
More than 123,000 people were evacuated by American and coalition aircraft since August 14, US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie said Monday.
The vast majority of these – around 79,000 – were evacuated by the US in what McKenzie called the “largest non-combatant evacuation” in the military’s history.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US and allies were discussing ways to reopen the airport as quickly as possible to facilitate safe travel out of Afghanistan for Americans, US legal permanent residents and Afghans who worked with the US.
“We discussed how we will work together to facilitate safe travel out of Afghanistan, including by reopening Kabul’s civilian airport soon as possible,” Blinken said.
“And we very much appreciate the efforts of Qatar and Turkey, in particular, to make this happen. This would enable a small number of daily charter flights, which is a key for anyone who wants to depart from Afghanistan moving forward.”
Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said Sunday that Ankara had been in talks with the Taliban about providing technical help to operate Kabul airport, Reuters reported.
Cavusoglu said inspection reports showed that runways, towers and terminals, including those in the civilian side of the airport, were damaged and needed repairing.
A number of attacks on the airport in recent days show that security will also be an immediate concern for the Taliban. As many as five rockets were fired at the airport on Monday, a US official told CNN. There were no reported casualties.
The rocket strikes happened just days after two suicide bomb attacks at the airport killed more than 170 people, including 13 American service members.
CNN’s Jonny Hallam, Sugam Pokharel and Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report