The Taliban celebrated their victory over the United States on Tuesday, firing guns into the air, parading coffins draped in US and Nato flags and setting about enforcing their rule after the last US troops withdrew from Afghanistan.
The Islamist militants now control more territory than when they last ruled before they were driven out in America’s longest war, which took the lives of nearly 2,500 US troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost some $2 trillion (€1.7 trillion).
"We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at Kabul airport after a C-17 aircraft took the last troops out 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 US soldier to step aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul – Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
There was a mixture of triumph and elation on the one side as the Taliban celebrated their victory, and fear on the other.
While crowds lined the streets of the eastern city of Khost for a fake funeral with coffins draped with western flags, long queues formed in Kabul outside banks shuttered since the fall of the capital.
“I had to go to the bank with my mother but when I went, the Taliban [were] beating women with sticks,” said a 22-year-old woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.
She said the attack occurred among a crowd outside a branch of the Azizi Bank next to the Kabul Star Hotel in the centre of the capital. “It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that and it really frightened me.”
Thousands of Afghans have already fled the country, 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 many of those who helped western nations during the war were left behind.
A contingent of Americans, estimated by US secretary of state Antony Blinken at fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US central command, told a Pentagon briefing that leaving people had been heartbreaking. “But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out,” he said.
The departing US troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft and dozens of armoured vehicles. They also disabled air defences that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State rocket attack on the eve of their departure.
As the Taliban watched US troops leave Kabul on Monday night, at least seven of their fighters were killed in clashes in the Panjshir valley north of the capital, two members of the main anti-Taliban opposition group said.
Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters, from local militias as well as remnants of army and special forces units, have gathered in the valley under the command of regional leader Ahmad Massoud.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US military was not concerned with images of Taliban members walking through Kabul airport holding weapons and sizing up US helicopters, telling CNN they could inspect all they wanted but could not fly them.
“The threat environment,” however, remains high, he said.
“We’re obviously concerned about the potential for Taliban retribution going forward and we certainly, we saw it ourselves, are mindful of the threat that Isis-K continues to pose inside Afghanistan.”
Isis-K is the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside Kabul airport on Thursday that killed 13 US service members and scores of Afghan civilians.
Taliban spokesman Mr Mujahid said the group wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the United States, despite the two decades of hostility. “The Islamic Emirate wants to have good diplomatic relations with the whole world,” he said. – Reuters