• Departing troops destroy over 70 aircraft, disable air defences
• Mittal meets Stanekzai amid India’s fears about Kashmir

KABUL: Celebratory gunfire resounded across the Afghan capital on Tuesday as the Taliban took control of the airport following the withdrawal of the last US troops, marking the end of a 20-year war.

Shaky video footage distributed by the Taliban showed fighters entering the airport after the last US troops flew out on a C-17 aircraft a minute before midnight, ending a hasty exit for Washington and its Nato allies.

An image from the Pentagon taken with night-vision optics showed the last US soldier stepping aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul, Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

After the departure, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid addressing a news conference at the airport called it a ‘historic day and a historic moment’. He said: “We are proud of these moments, that we liberated our country from a great power.”

Also on Tuesday, Indian ambassador to Qatar Deepak Mittal met the head of the group’s political office, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, at the request of the Taliban, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs. This was the first formal diplomatic engagement since the group took over Afghanistan in the mid of August.

As the Taliban took back the power after striking a deal with the US, the world is watching to see if the group will form a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.

The America’s longest war lasting two decades took the lives of around 240,000 Afghans and nearly 2,500 US troops, and cost some $2 trillion.

More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the US and its allies over the past two weeks, but many of those who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.

A contingent of Americans estimated by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab put the number of UK nationals in Afghanistan in the low hundreds, following the evacuation of some 5,000.

General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that the chief US diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie told reporters. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out.”

Over 70 aircraft destroyed

The departing US troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft and dozens of armoured vehicles. They also disabled air defences that had thwarted an attempted rocket attack by the militant Islamic State (IS) group on the eve of their departure.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US military was not concerned with images of Taliban members walking through Kabul airport holding weapons and sizing up US helicopters.

He said: “They can inspect all they want,” he told CNN. “They can look at them. They can walk around. They can’t fly. They can’t operate them...” But “the threat environment” remained high, he added.

US President Joe Biden defended his decision to stick to Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline, saying the United States long ago achieved the objectives it set in 2001, when it ousted the Taliban for harbouring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept 11 attacks.

The India’s ambassador to Qatar held talks with the top Taliban leader amid concerns about the group’s close ties to Pakistan.

India claimed the two sides discussed the safety of Indians left behind in Afghanistan. Mittal also conveyed India’s fears that anti-India militants could use Afghanistan’s soil to mount attacks, while “the Taliban representative assured the ambassador that these issues would be positively addressed,” said the Indian ministry.

Published in Dawn, September 1st, 2021

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