U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday called the U.S. military airlift to extract more than 120,000 Afghans, Americans and other allies and to end a 20 year war an “extraordinary success,” even though more than 100 Americans and thousands of Afghans who want to leave remain stuck in the country.
Twenty-four hours after the departure of the last American C-17 cargo plane from Kabul, Biden vigorously defended his decision to end America’s longest war and withdraw all U.S. troops ahead of today’s deadline.
“I was not going to extend this forever war,” Biden said in an address from the White House State Dining Room. “And I was not going to extend a forever exit.”
Biden has faced tough questions about the way the U.S. went about leaving Afghanistan — a chaotic evacuation and spasms of violence including a suicide bomb that killed 13 American service members and 169 Afghans.
He is under heavy criticism, particularly from Republicans, for his handling of the evacuation, though it successfully airlifted more than 120,000 people from Kabul airport.
But he said it was inevitable that the final departure from two decades of war would be difficult with likely violence, no matter when it was planned and conducted.
“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan I ask, ‘What is the vital national interest?'” Biden said. He added, “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan.”
In addition to all the questions at home, Biden is also adjusting to a new relationship with the Taliban, the Islamist militant group that the U.S. toppled after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that is now once again in power in Afghanistan.
The Taliban revelled in their victory after the American withdrawal, reiterating their pledge Tuesday to bring peace and security to the country after decades of war. Their anxious citizens, meanwhile, are waiting to see what the new order looks like.
Having humbled the world’s most powerful military, the Taliban now face the challenge of governing a nation of 38 million people that relies heavily on international aid, and imposing some form of Islamic rule on a population that is far more educated and cosmopolitan than it was when the group last governed Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Thousands who had worked with the U.S. and its allies, as well as up to 200 Americans, remained in the country after the massive airlift ended with the last U.S. soldiers flying out of Kabul international airport just before midnight Monday.
Hours later, Taliban leaders flanked by fighters from the group’s elite Badri unit toured the abandoned airport and posed for photos.
“Afghanistan is finally free,” Hekmatullah Wasiq, a top Taliban official, told The Associated Press on the tarmac. “Hopefully, we will be announcing our cabinet. Everything is peaceful. Everything is safe.”
He urged people to return to work and reiterated the Taliban’s offer of amnesty to all Afghans who had fought against the group over the last 20 years. “People have to be patient,” he said. “Slowly we will get everything back to normal. It will take time.”
Biden was critical of the Afghan army in his address, and asserted that his administration was ready when the U.S.-backed government in Kabul collapsed in mid-August and the Taliban took over.
“We were ready when the Afghan Security Forces, after two decades of fighting for their country did not hold on for as long as anyone expected,” he said. “We were ready when they and the people of Afghanistan watched their own government collapse, and the president flee, amid the corruption and malfeasance, handing over the country to their enemy the Taliban significantly increasing the risk to U.S. personnel and our allies.”
A long-running economic crisis has worsened since the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country in mid-August, with people crowding banks to maximize their daily withdrawal limit of about $200 US. Civil servants haven’t been paid in months and the local currency is losing value. Most of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves are held abroad and currently frozen.
“We keep coming to work but we are not getting paid,” said Abdul Maqsood, a traffic police officer on duty near the airport. He said he hasn’t received his salary in four months.
A major drought threatens the food supply, and thousands who fled during the Taliban’s advance remain in squalid camps.
“Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Ramiz Alakbarov, the local UN humanitarian co-ordinator. He said $1.3 billion US is needed for aid efforts, only 39 per cent of which has been received.
‘I am not afraid,’ says young girl
The challenges the Taliban face in reviving the economy could give Western nations leverage as they push the group to fulfil a pledge to allow free travel, form an inclusive government and guarantee women’s rights. The Taliban say they want to have good relations with other countries, including the United States.
There are few signs of the draconian restrictions the Taliban imposed last time they were in power. Schools have reopened to boys and girls, though Taliban officials have said they will study separately. Women are out on the streets wearing Islamic headscarves — as they always have — rather than the all-encompassing burqa the Taliban required in the past.
“I am not afraid of the Taliban,” said Masooda, a fifth-grader, as she headed to school on Tuesday.
When the Taliban last ruled the country, from 1996 to 2001, they banned television, music and even photography, but there’s no sign of that yet. TV stations are still operating normally and the Taliban fighters themselves can be seen taking selfies around Kabul.
Avoid airport area for now: Taliban spokesperson
For now, the Taliban appear to be less interested in imposing restrictions on daily life than they are in getting the country running again, a task that could prove challenging to fighters who have spent most of their lives waging an insurgency in the countryside.
They are expected to focus on Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, where scenes of chaos and horror played out for weeks as tens of thousands fled in a massive U.S.-led airlift.
Thousands of Afghans besieged the airport after the Taliban blitzed across Afghanistan and took Kabul on Aug. 15, and some fell to their death after desperately hanging onto the side of an American military cargo jet. Last week, an Islamic State suicide attack at an airport gate killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
Early Tuesday, the airport was littered with artifacts of the withdrawal. Inside the terminal were scattered piles of clothes, luggage and documents. Several CH-46 helicopters used by American forces were parked in a hangar. The U.S. military says it disabled 27 Humvees and 73 aircraft before leaving.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid later said technical teams are “repairing and cleaning” the airport and advised people to avoid the area for the time being.
The Taliban have said they will allow people with legal documents to travel freely, but it remains to be seen whether any commercial airlines will be willing to offer service. The Taliban are expected to hold talks with Qatar and Turkey on resuming airport operations.
“I hope you will be very cautious in dealing with the nation,” Mujahid said in a speech at the airport, addressing the Taliban fighters gathered there. “Our nation has suffered war and invasion, and the people do not have more tolerance.”
At the end of his remarks, the fighters shouted: “God is greatest!”