The last American military flight left the airport and disappeared into the Kabul sky on Monday — and minutes later, the Taliban flooded the streets around the city’s last exit point, filling the night with celebratory gunfire.
It was a decisive and humbling final chapter to the United States’ longest war, a two-decade effort that unraveled spectacularly in the space of a few weeks.
Standing on the runway on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid framed the militant group’s dramatic takeover of Afghanistan as a nationalist success, telling a small crowd: “This victory belongs to us all.”
But for thousands of Afghans, the final Western flights took with them a last chance to leave the country. Many now fear their new realities; in particular, women, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, journalists and others face brutal treatment under the group’s radical interpretation of Sharia Law.
And for the Taliban’s leaders, a rapid transition to national governance beckons. The group has no experience of running a traditional administration, and showed little familiarity with geopolitics during its five-year reign two decades ago. Their sincerity and capability now has repercussions for 38 million Afghans, many of whom will be displaced or thrust into economic crisis.
Afghanistan is a very different country to the one the Taliban ruled between 1996 and 2001. Most Afghans don’t even remember that era — more than 60% of the country is aged under 25. It is urbanizing, diverse, and better connected to the world, all of which place it in stark contrast to the war-torn nation the Taliban conquered 25 years ago.
What the Taliban now do with that country is arguably the world’s most pressing geopolitical question.
“This is one of the most dramatic changes in government in the modern era,” Benjamin Petrini, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told CNN.
The West is “pulling out not only ourselves but all the human resources that have worked with us for 20 years,” he said. “Those will be replaced with what? That’s a question mark.”