On the tarmac of Kabul airport on Tuesday, Taliban leaders declared victory over the United States, just hours after the last American troops left Afghanistan in the hands of the militant group.
After the final US plane departed just before midnight on Monday night, bringing an end to America’s longest war, the airport that had been the epicenter of a frantic Western evacuation mission in recent weeks was transformed into a stage for Taliban celebrations.
Videos showed Taliban fighters firing into the night sky and walking through the airport. As the sun rose on Tuesday, footage showed militants making their way through an abandoned hangar strewn with equipment left behind by the US.
In one video, militants wearing US-style uniforms and wielding US-made weapons examined a parked CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter inside a hangar. Taliban fighters were also seen posing for photos in the cockpits of planes and helicopters that used to be part of the Afghan Air Force.
Some US military equipment used in Afghanistan has been removed from the country, and others have been disabled, according to Gen. Frank McKenzie, Commander of US Central Command, during a press conference on Monday. On Tuesday morning, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a small crowd on the airport runway, “This victory belongs to us all.”
He was accompanied by heavily armed Taliban fighters from the Badri 313 special forces brigade, who were dressed in camouflage uniforms and desert boots.
Mujahid congratulated the Taliban fighters in line, as well as “the entire nation.” He stated that the Taliban desired “good relations with the United States and the rest of the world.”
For the first time since the 1990s, Afghanistan’s roughly 38 million people awoke on Tuesday to a new phase of the Taliban’s takeover of the country, when it imposed a barbaric interpretation of Sharia law that barred girls from school, stoned women for adultery, and plunged the country into economic crisis.
The Taliban has promised to govern more moderately this time, and has stated that foreign nationals and Afghans with proper documentation will be allowed to leave the country after August 31. Many Afghans, however, are skeptical of their claims, and there are serious doubts about the Taliban’s ability to govern the country.
The Taliban’s immediate challenge will be securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, which serves as a vital lifeline to the rest of the world, both for Afghans and foreign nationals seeking to flee and for aid to enter.
Afghanistan is heavily reliant on foreign aid, and the World Health Organization and UNICEF have already struggled to get critical food and medical supplies to the airport amid the mass evacuation.
Even before the recent political upheaval, Afghanistan was the world’s third-largest humanitarian concern, with over 18 million people in need of assistance, according to UNICEF. However, because commercial aircraft are not currently permitted to land in Kabul, delivering aid will be difficult.
Resuming commercial flights will also be critical for those who still want to leave the country but were unable to board military evacuation planes.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the United States and its allies were discussing ways to reopen the airport as soon as possible in order to facilitate safe travel out of Afghanistan for Americans, legal permanent residents of the United States, and Afghans who worked with the US.
“We discussed how we will collaborate to facilitate safe exit from Afghanistan, including reopening Kabul’s civilian airport as soon as possible,” Blinken said.
“And we sincerely appreciate Qatar’s and Turkey’s efforts to make this happen. This would allow for a limited number of daily charter flights, which would be critical for anyone looking to leave Afghanistan in the future.”
Turkey’s Foreign Minister said on Sunday that Ankara was in talks with the Taliban about providing technical assistance to Kabul Airport.
Cavusoglu stated that inspection reports revealed that runways, towers, and terminals, including those on the airport’s civilian side, were damaged and needed to be repaired.