From the tarmac where the last American plane had departed from Afghanistan’s capital around midnight, the Taliban’s spokesman declared victory Tuesday in their two-decade fight against U.S. occupation.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman, congratulated Afghans as he toured the airport. “This victory belongs to us all,” he said.
Mr. Mujahid made the declaration as he led journalists through a facility littered with the remains of the frantic operation to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing the new reality of life under the rule of the militant group.
But celebrations by the Taliban are likely to be short-lived. The group now faces the daunting challenge of governing a desperately poor and polarized country, plagued by food and cash shortages, terrorist threats and an intensifying humanitarian crisis. A third of all Afghans face what the United Nations calls crisis levels of food insecurity.
Mr. Mujahid, flanked by Taliban officials and fighters from the group’s elite unit, said that the airport, still named after the president whom the United States installed years earlier, would reopen for air traffic within a matter of days. He also repeated the Taliban’s previous assurances that Afghans with passports and visas would be allowed to leave the country, regardless of their role during the American occupation.
“The end of the occupation was our biggest goal and we have been fighting for this day for the last 20 years: to end this war and attack of foreigners on us and bring our own Islamic government,” Mr. Mujahid said. “That goal is achieved now.”
He added that the Taliban would work to “strengthen the government and protect our beliefs and serve our nation. This is a day of happiness and a historical day.”
Despite Mr. Mujahid’s assertions, the passenger terminal was in an evident state of disorder. Shattered glass littered hallways, and destroyed vehicles were jamming the parking lot.
And tens of thousands of Afghans who had clung to the hope of fleeing a country under Taliban rule now faced the reality that a primary escape hatch — Kabul’s airport — was under the group’s control.
Qatar and Turkey were said to be in discussions with the Taliban about whether they will help operate civilian flights from the airport. The Taliban said on Tuesday that the airport would reopen within days, and that those with visas would be allowed to leave.
On the northern side of the airport, from where the U.S. military had airlifted some 123,000 people out of the country, even more signs of disarray were visible. Dozens of military vehicles and armored S.U.V.s were left behind. Alongside them were piles of wrappers from military food rations and empty plastic bottles of baby milk.
In front of an adjacent hangar sat a number of aircraft that had, until recently, been used to help keep the Taliban from power: A-29 Super Tucano propeller bombers, MD-530 gunship helicopters and Mi-17 transport helicopters. U.S. military officials have said that the aircraft left behind were all permanently disabled.
Afghans woke up Tuesday morning to the reality of an Afghanistan firmly under the control of the Taliban amid intensifying fears that their country was being subsumed by a repressive regime as it battles an escalating economic and humanitarian crisis.
As the last hulking American planes receded from view over the capital, Kabul, late Monday, and news of their departure became clear, jubilant Taliban fighters shot their guns in the air, the arc of tracer rounds lighting up the night sky. The American withdrawal marked the end of a 20-year occupation that cost over $2 trillion, claimed more than 170,000 lives and culminated in a takeover by the very insurgents that the United States had sought to remove.
Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo, Afghanistan’s largest broadcaster, underlined the huge hurdles facing the Taliban, including winning support from everyday Afghans.
“Peoples’ expectations have grown dramatically after the past 20 years of freedom and liberation, and the pain is yet to come,” he said. “Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?”
The Taliban now confront the need to form a government that many Afghans and foreign governments may not even recognize.
Basic services like electricity provision are under threat as many state employees have not turned up for work. Washington has frozen Afghan government reserves, and the International Monetary Fund has blocked Afghanistan from accessing emergency reserves.
Conditions will probably soon get much worse, with food stocks likely to run out at the end of September, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan.
In Kabul, “we may be on the brink of an urban humanitarian catastrophe,” he said. “Prices are up. There are no salaries. At some point, millions of people will reach desperation.”
A U.S. military official said that every American who had wanted to leave and could get to the airport had been taken out. But a number of Americans, thought to be fewer than 300, remain, either by choice or because they were unable to reach the airport.
Some people turned to social media to ask for help getting relatives out of the country. “My family were at the entrance of Kabul airport for 4 days, after that being left behind, please help them from a third country,” one man who identified himself as a former British military interpreter wrote in a publicly visible message on Twitter to a British lawmaker.
Since capturing Kabul, the Taliban have sought to rebrand themselves as more moderate. But many in Afghanistan recall the group’s rule in the 1990s, which deprived women of basic rights like education, and encouraged punishments like floggings, amputations and mass executions.
The early signs that the Taliban have changed their ways do not look encouraging. Since capturing Kabul on Aug. 15, the insurgents have cracked down on protests, violently suppressed members of the news media and rounded up opponents.
And while pledging to respect women’s rights, they warned the women of Afghanistan that it might be safest for them to remain at home. That is, until the rank-and-file Taliban fighters have been trained how not to mistreat them.