Hours after the United States withdrew its troops and officially ended their 20-year war in Afghanistan, the Taliban held their first press conference as a “free and sovereign” country.
On Tuesday, Taliban officials were seen entering the Hamid Karzai International Airport. “Congratulations to Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said to the reporters. “This victory belongs to us all.”
In dramatic videos from the airport runway, Mujahid and other Taliban officials are seen surrounded by the group’s special forces known as the Badri 313 unit. Mujahid said that the Taliban’s victory was a “lesson for other invaders” and reiterated their stance of being more tolerant than their first stint in power.
“America was defeated... and on behalf of my nation, we want to have good relations with the rest of the world,” Mujahid said, adding they will protect the “freedom, independence and Islamic values” of Afghans.
Reports that the Taliban had completed consultations regarding its new government emerged just hours after the press conference, but details have yet to be announced.
Another Taliban leader, Anas Haqqani, tweeted about the withdrawal and said they made “history again”. “I am very happy that after 20 years of jihad, sacrifices and hardships I have this pride to see these historic moments,” said the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the lethal Taliban insurgent faction, the Haqqani Network.
Where the Taliban chose to hold their press conference was symbolic. The airport had been the epicentre of the international media’s focus since the Taliban took over the country. Transforming from pure and utter chaos as Afghans were desperate to flee, to a site of terror on Thursday when a bombing killed at least 170 people, it was—up until 11:59 PM local time—the last bastion of U.S. occupation. The press conference on the airport’s runway served to cement their takeover literally and figuratively.
Images of the press conference at the airport were jarringly different from the scenes the world had seen from the same site in previous weeks. The airport was quiet and deserted, except for Taliban leaders seen surrounded by the armed Badri 313 special unit, an elite military unit considered critical in the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The fighters were seen brandishing U.S. rifles and the Taliban’s white flag.
Unlike the Taliban fighters often found in informal clothes, Badri 313 soldiers wear military fatigues and boots, body armour, carry tactical rifles and travel in armoured vehicles. Videos and images of the Badri 313 forces are often found in propaganda media shared by Taliban officials.
In a video from the press conference, Mujahid thanked the Badri 313 unit for their “sacrifice” and praised their “patience and perseverance” in taking control of the country. “Our success is because of you all,” he said. “I congratulate you and the nation on this freedom, and I wish that Afghanistan will never be occupied again, and that an Islamic system will be established here.”
At the press conference, Taliban leaders, led by Mujahid, briefly spoke to journalists, and then walked down the runway and inspected aircraft abandoned by the U.S. military. Separate images showed a Taliban fighter sitting in the cockpit of an Afghan Air Force aircraft, while others showed Badri 313 fighters in vehicles driving down the runway.
A few steps away, the airport’s terminal was littered with empty bullet casings and trash from the previous weeks’ chaos. Several military hospital tents were smashed and aircraft tyres were shot out.
In a video posted by multiple Twitter users who identified themselves as a “journalist in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, a man is seen speaking into the camera as he enters the airport with Badri 313 fighters.
In the immediate aftermath of U.S. withdrawal, Taliban fighters were seen sweeping into the airport and firing guns in the air in celebration. Mujahid went on Twitter to celebrate what he called “full independence”. “We are out of [American] control,” he said in a tweet.
America's longest war took the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost around $2 trillion.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, announced on Monday night the “completion” of the U.S. withdrawal and end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens.
McKenzie also added that the U.S. military disabled 73 aircraft and armoured vehicles that were left behind.
U.S. President Joe Biden is due to give a public statement today on the withdrawal.
Last night, Biden thanked U.S. forces for executing the “dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan” within 17 days. He added that the country will continue working with international partners to evacuate Americans, Afghan partners and foreign nationals looking to leave Afghanistan.
Hundreds of foreigners and many more Afghans are yet to be evacuated from Kabul.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.