The United States has pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan, ending its longest war to cries of shame at home and celebratory gunfire from its victorious Taliban enemies in Kabul.
The last of the American troops overseeing a desperate evacuation effort flew out of Kabul airport on Monday night, completing a withdrawal that has raised deep questions about the United States’ status as a superpower.
Taliban fighters quickly swept into the airport and fired weapons into the sky in jubilation, celebrating an astonishing victory for the hardline Islamist movement two decades after US forces invaded Afghanistan and toppled them from power.
However, the Taliban will inherit a devastated country despite the United States spending billions to rebuild it, with deep poverty, drought and Islamic State threats among the many challenges.
For the Afghan people, many are terrified of a repeat of the Taliban’s initial rule from 1996-2001, which was infamous for their treatment of girls and women, as well as a brutal justice system.
The withdrawal came just before the end of an August 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden to call time on America’s longest war — one that ultimately claimed the lives of more than 2,400 US service members.
The early finish followed a threat from the regional offshoot of the Islamic State group, rivals of the Taliban, which was seeking to attack the US forces at the airport.
Thirteen US troops were among more than 100 people killed when an IS suicide bomber late last week attacked the perimeter of the airport, where desperate Afghans had massed in hope of getting on board an evacuation flight.
More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul aboard the US-led airlift operation, which began just after the Taliban swept into the capital on August 14.
Biden said he would address the nation on Tuesday in Washington, as his critics continued to savage him for his handling of the withdrawal.
“We can’t fight endless wars, but the scope & consequence of Biden’s failure here is staggering,” Republican Senator Rick Scott said.
“President Biden has brought great shame on the American people,” added congressman Richard Hudson.
Biden’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was able to offer little more than stern words for the Taliban.
“Any legitimacy and any support will have to be earned,” Blinken said, as he announced the United States had suspended its diplomatic presence in Kabul and shifted its operations to Qatar.
In Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Afghanistan had “gained full independence” with the US withdrawal.
Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official, said he was “proud” to witness “these historic moments”.
AFP correspondents in the city heard celebratory gunfire from several Taliban checkpoints, as well as the cheers of fighters manning security posts in the Green Zone.
All eyes will now turn to how the Taliban handles its first few days with sole authority over the country, with a sharp focus on whether it will allow other foreigners and Afghans to leave the country.
Blinken said a small number of US citizens remained in the country — “under 200” but likely closer to just 100 — and wanted to leave.
Many thousands of other Afghans who had worked with the US-backed government and fear retribution also want to get out.
Western allies have voiced heartbreak in recent days that not all Afghans who wanted to flee could get on the evacuation flights.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution Monday, requiring the Taliban to honour a commitment to let people freely leave Afghanistan in the days ahead, and to grant access to the UN and other aid agencies.
But they did not agree to call for the creation of a “safe zone” in Kabul, as envisaged by French President Emmanual Macron.
Talks are ongoing as to who will now run Kabul airport.
The Taliban have asked Turkey to handle logistics while they maintain control of security, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not yet accepted that offer.
It was not immediately clear which airlines would agree to fly in and out of Kabul.
The regional Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group had posed the biggest threat to the withdrawal after it carried out the devastating suicide bombing outside the airport last week.
On Monday, they also claimed to have fired six rockets at the airport. A Taliban official said the attack was intercepted by the airport’s missile defence systems.
And in an echo of the tragedies of civilian deaths that plagued the war and cost the United States local support, a US air strike in Kabul targeting a purported IS car bomb on the weekend appeared to have killed children.
The United States said Sunday it had carried out a drone strike against a vehicle threatening the Kabul airport.
Members of one family told AFP they believed a fatal error had been made, and that 10 civilians were killed.
“My brother and his four children were killed. I lost my small daughter… nephews and nieces,” Aimal Ahmadi told AFP.