Hours after the last foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan, Taliban leaders walked victorious through the Kabul airport, flanked by guards dressed in special forces combat kit inspecting destroyed US military equipment.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid led a group of officials onto the runway, a broad grin on his usually stoic face.
“Congratulations to Afghanistan… this victory belongs to us all,” Mujahid told reporters. “America was defeated, they could not achieve their targets through military operations,” he said.
The Taliban’s “Badri 313” special forces unit posed for pictures, brandishing US rifles and flying the group’s white flag.
Once one of the most secure sites in Afghanistan, the airport’s passenger terminal was left in chaos with empty bullet casings littering the floor near all the entrances.
The airport was at the centre of a chaotic evacuation since the Taliban took over the country on August 15. The US and its allies airlifted more than 100,000 people, both foreigners and Afghans who feared reprisals from the new rulers.
Ensuring the security of the airport is a key issue, and the Taliban has repeatedly said they would not accept any foreign military presence in Afghanistan. They are in talks with Turkey to take over the civilian operation of the airport. No deal has been reached yet.
The departing US military disabled several aircraft and armoured vehicles – as well as a high-tech rocket defence system – at the airport, a US general said.
Central Command head General Kenneth McKenzie said 73 aircraft were “demilitarised”, or rendered useless, by US troops before they wrapped up the two-week evacuation of the Taliban-controlled country.
He said the Pentagon, which built up a force of nearly 6,000 troops to occupy and operate Kabul’s airport during the airlift, left behind some 70 MRAP armoured tactical vehicles – which can cost up to $1m each – that it disabled before leaving.
The US also left behind the C-RAM system – counter rocket, artillery, and mortar – that was used to protect the airport from rocket attacks.
The system helped fend off a five-rocket barrage from the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), an ISIL affiliate, in Afghanistan on Monday.