After nearly 20 years the American-led war in Afghanistan is finally over (or is it...). The last US forces left last night, and on Tuesday, Taliban forces took control of the airport in Kabul, while Taliban fighters and supporters across Afghanistan rallied to celebrate the return of Islamic rule.
Senior Taliban leaders posed in front of a C-130 transport plane at the Kabul airport, the hub of the chaotic US-led evacuation operation in recent days. Fighters took selfies in the cockpits of Afghan military helicopters, which had been disabled before being abandoned by US troops.
The Taliban's top spokesman issued a statement calling for the reconstruction of an Afghanistan now firmly under Taliban rule.
"We hope that Afghanistan will not be invaded again, that it will be rebuilt, remain independent, and that a holy Islamic system will rule," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, as uniformed fighters in modern combat gear knelt on the tarmac and chanted "Allahu akbar".
Speaking to members of the Taliban’s Badri 313 unit, Mujahid continued, via WSJ: "I praise all your sacrifices, congratulate you all on the great victory, and on achieving independence and freedom for Afghanistan."
While the Taliban offered amnesty to former government officials and soldiers after taking Kabul and tried to project a more moderate image, they are increasingly returning to their old ways. The Taliban-appointed acting minister of higher education has said women and men could no longer attend the same university lectures, women presenters have been banned from radio and TV in the southern city of Kandahar, and dozens, if not hundreds, of former security officials have been executed.
Still, tens of thousands of Afghans who assisted the NATO war effort remain behind in Afghanistan, many still hoping to leave the country before they are imprisoned or executed by the Taliban. Additionally, the US left behind a small contingent of Americans (WSJ says between 100 and 200) and while Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to do everything in the US's power to support them, right now, it appears there's little to be done, as all commercial flights have been suspended temporarily.
Turkey has offered to continue to support the airport's operation even as NATO ceases its operations there, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, but the Taliban have yet to approve this, and right now, the airport remains closed. Stoltenberg also told reporters that NATO is working with EU members to stave off a potential refugee crisis, while also working to ensure Afghanistan doesn't become a hotbed for terrorism (here's a rundown of countries willing to take Afghan refugees).
A US-based group advocating for SIVs for qualified Afghans said about 113,000 people left behind by the US and NATO during the withdrawal still want to leave the country. Per Bloomberg, the estimate was produced by the Association of Wartime Allies and based on reports on Afghan employment analyzed by the group and researchers at American University.
In terms of diplomacy, the US and other Western nations and India have cut official ties by closing their embassies in Kabul. Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran and NATO member Turkey, however, have left their embassies open. Although they haven't formally recognized the Taliban authorities, they are in regular contact with them.
There might be one potential back-channel for the US as rescue operations begin for the Americans still let stranded. The Indian ambassador in Qatar met with the deputy head of the Taliban’s political office on Tuesday to discuss regional security, according to a statement from India’s foreign ministry.
On Tuesday, the Taliban repeated their claim that they want "peace" and a functional diplomatic relationship with the US. Meanwhile, across the country, anti-American celebrations roared as local leaders praised the defeat of the foreign invaders.
One senior Taliban leader in Khost praised the suicide bombers whose attacks on the US during the course of the war helped the Taliban secure victory. "We will establish the Islamic system you yearned for," he said, according to a recording of the rally. "Your dreams have been realized. We have achieved the dream for which you had blown up your flesh. We congratulate you in your graves."
The Taliban now control all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces except for one: Panjshir, a narrow valley north of Kabul where anti-Taliban militias and some remnants of the defeated Afghan army continue to be holed up, hoping to establish a permanent base outside of Taliban control.
Though the Taliban and the Panjshiris are negotiating a possible deal, armed skirmishes have continued on the outskirts of the valley.
The question now is how will the Taliban go about running a country of 40MM with few resources at their disposal. Their international reserves have been frozen by the US, and while China and Russia will offer some support, it will be up to the Taliban to make sure sewer systems and electric grids are functioning, as well as the airports. Given the intense international scrutiny, how long might it take for the Taliban to start with the reprisals against any perceived enemies still in the country?