The Taliban are celebrating their return to power after they took charge of Kabul airport following the departure of the last US troops from Afghanistan.
The Afghan group said on Tuesday Afghanistan is now a “free and sovereign” nation as it hailed the exit of US troops, describing their departure as a “historic moment”.
“Congratulations to Afghanistan… this victory belongs to us all,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters from the runway of the Hamid Karzai International airport.
“America was defeated, they could not achieve their targets through military operations,” he said.
The United States’s longest military conflict drew to a close on Monday night when its forces left Kabul airport, where it had overseen a frenzied airlift that saw more than 123,000 people evacuated since the Taliban took over on August 15.
Taliban fighters swept into the airport and fired weapons into the sky across the city in jubilation – an astonishing return after US forces invaded in 2001 and toppled them for their links to al-Qaeda, which was blamed for the 9/11 attacks.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, announced that the last American troops flew out of Kabul just before midnight local time (19:30 GMT).
“We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we stayed another 10 days, we would not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.”
Some Afghans are worried about a return to the Taliban’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001, which was marked by curbs on women rights and a brutal justice system.
However, the Taliban has repeatedly promised a more tolerant and open brand of rule compared with their first stint in power, and Mujahid continued that theme.
“We want to have good relations with the US and the world. We welcome good diplomatic relations with them all,” he said.
Mujahid also insisted Taliban security forces would “be gentle and nice”.
Reporting from Kabul, Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford said: “From the start, the Taliban have been very keen to try to convince both the Afghans and the international community that they are more aware of the needs of a functioning country in the modern world … and that we [they] have changed to a different political entity.”
Stratford added, however, that “issues of trust” remain. “There are big countries, American rivals, that have already reached out to the Taliban, including China, Russia and Iran,” he said.
All eyes will now turn to how the Taliban handles its first few days of sole authority over the country, with a sharp focus on whether it will allow free departure for those wanting to leave – including some foreigners.
Blinken said a small number of US citizens remained in the country – “under 200” but likely closer to just 100.
Many thousands of Afghans, who worked with foreign missions or the US-backed government over the years and fear retribution, also want to get out.
The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on Monday urging the Taliban to honour a commitment to let people freely leave Afghanistan in the days ahead and to allow humanitarian access to UN and other aid agencies.
Talks are ongoing as to who will now run Kabul airport. The Taliban has asked Turkey to handle logistics while they maintain control of security, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not yet accepted that offer.
Biden faces criticism
The US troops’ withdrawal came just before the August 31 deadline set by US President Joe Biden to end the war that killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and more than 2,400 American service members.
Facing stinging criticism from the opposition as well as from fellow Democrats for his handling of the withdrawal, Biden said he would address the nation on Tuesday in Washington, DC.
“We can’t fight endless wars, but the scope and consequence of Biden’s failure here is staggering,” Republican Senator Rick Scott said.
Biden’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was able to offer little more than stern words for the Taliban.
“Any legitimacy and any support will have to be earned,” Blinken said, as he announced the US had suspended its diplomatic presence in Kabul and shifted its operations to Qatar.