The final US troops withdrew from Afghanistan on Monday leaving behind a stockpile of expensive military equipment that has been quickly claimed by a triumphant Taliban.
The group’s leaders, flanked by their elite Badri unit, walked across the tarmac at Kabul‘s international airport just hours after the last US Air Force C-17 transport aircraft departed.
The commandos came dressed in what appeared to be new camouflage uniforms and proudly posed for photos on the tarmac, while vehicles carrying the Taliban raced along Hamid Karzai International Airport's sole runway on the military side of the airfield.
“Afghanistan is finally free,” Hekmatullah Wasiq, a top Taliban official, said from the airport. “Everything is peaceful. Everything is safe.”
Taliban fighters storm into the Kabul International Airport, wielding American supplied weapons, equipment & uniforms – after the U.S. Military have completed their withdrawal. Fighters celebrated with gunfire & chants through the night. #Afghanistan https://t.co/kyktWDxTrU pic.twitter.com/DM75FapxkB
— Marcus Yam 文火 (@yamphoto) August 30, 2021
But thousands who had worked with Western nations, plus hundreds of US, French and other citizens, remain in the country after the massive airlift ended with the last US soldiers flying out of Kabul international airport just before midnight on Monday.
The Taliban has urged people to return to work, with the group having reiterated its offer of amnesty to all Afghans who had fought against them over the last 20 years.
“People have to be patient,” Mr Wasiq said. “Slowly we will get everything back to normal. It will take time.”
On Tuesday, there were few signs of the draconian restrictions the Taliban imposed last time they were in power.
Schools had reopened to boys and girls, though they will have to study separately, and women were out on the streets wearing Islamic headscarves rather than the all-encompassing burqa the Taliban required in the past.
Rebuilding Afghanistan will require time and vast amounts of money. One local UN humanitarian coordinator said $1.3bn would be needed for aid efforts alone – only 39 per cent of which has been received.
One part of the new regime which is well-resourced is its military wing. Reports suggest equipment worth billions has been left to the group, including seven CH-46 helicopters at the airport which the US State Department used in its evacuations before rendering them unusable.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, the head of US military's Central Command, said troops had disabled 27 Humvees and 73 aircraft so the Taliban would not be able to use them again.
He said troops did not blow up equipment needed for eventually restarting airport operations.
But White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan has previously said the US does not have a “complete picture“ of the abandoned defence materials.
Many of the vehicles and weapons were fully functioning and are now in the hands of the Taliban.
Among the hardware left behind by departing Western troops were special forces military helmets with mounts for night vision goggles, body armour, M4 and M-16 assault rifles and sophisticated radio equipment.
Ford pickup trucks, mine-resistant vehicles, attack planes and dozens of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were also said to have been abandoned during the hasty departure.
This is understood to include close to 500,000 assault weapons, more than 22,000 humvees and 42,000 SUVs, according to data from the US Government Accounting Office.
The Afghan air force was also said to have been operating 167 “usable / in-country” aircraft as recently as June, according to the US-based Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction quarterly report.
That figure included 33 Black Hawks, three C-130 Hercules aircraft, 23 A-19 light attack planes, 33 AC-208 planes, 43 MD-530 helicopters, and 32 Mi-17 Helicopters. The “total inventory” is even higher at 211 total aircraft, which included 45 Black Hawk choppers.
In addition, Taliban fighters are believed to have obtained biometric devices which would allow the group to collect and store personal data and identify individuals more accurately.
The US has spent at least $18bn (£13bn) since 2005 to help the Afghan military with “equipment and transportation”, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report said, while billions more dollars have been spent on maintenance and training.
Jim Banks, a US Republican Congressman who served in Afghanistan, claimed last week that the Taliban has “more Black Hawk helicopters than 85 per cent of the countries in the world” and said the group “now has access to $85bn [£61bn] worth of military equipment”.
Unverified video released on Monday purported to show a US-made Black Hawk helicopter flying over the streets of Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan.
“Our Air Force! At this time, the Islamic Emirate’s air force helicopters are flying over Kandahar city and patrolling the city,” Twitter account Talib Times, which claims to be the “official news” handle of the Islamic Emirate Afghanistan, said.
It came just days after another video showed Taliban taxiing a captured Blackhawk helicopter at Kandahar Airport.
“Those Black Hawks were not given to the Taliban,” Mr Sullivan said at a press conference. “They were given to the Afghan National Security Forces to be able to defend themselves at the specific request of President [Ashraf] Ghani, who came to the Oval Office and asked for additional air capability, among other things.”
Additional reporting by AP