Taliban fighters celebrated at the Kabul airport Tuesday while key al Qaeda leaders made a triumphant return to Afghanistan, signaling a dark new reality for the country a day after Western troops withdrew and America ended the longest-running war in its history.
Finally free of a U.S. military presence after 20 years, Taliban leaders promised they will soon form a new “inclusive” government in Afghanistan. The Islamist group has tried hard to shed the hard-line reputation it earned during its previous time in power in the late 1990s, though troubling reports of Taliban violence, retribution and collaboration with terrorists have already undercut that effort in recent days.
On the ground at the Kabul airport, the Taliban reveled in having taken full control of a facility that just days earlier was the site of the largest airlift in American history.
“Afghanistan is finally free,” Hekmatullah Wasiq, a top Taliban official, told The Associated Press. “Everything is peaceful. Everything is safe.”
Back at home, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley faced mounting calls to resign over the military’s handling of the Afghanistan evacuation effort and the apparent intelligence failure to conceive that the Taliban could so quickly conquer the capital and the country.
More than 100 U.S. citizens remain stranded in the country despite President Biden’s promise just weeks ago that he would leave no American behind, government officials estimate.
Pentagon officials stressed Tuesday that the military portion of the Afghanistan mission has ended and that the State Department now will work with the Taliban to get those Americans back home, though it’s not clear how or when that may happen.
“It’s not completely unlike the way we do it elsewhere around the world. We have Americans that get stranded in countries all the time,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told MSNBC in an interview Tuesday.
In remarks at the White House, Mr. Biden pledged that rescue efforts will continue.
“For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline,” he said.
Military leaders may have declared the Afghanistan mission over, but there are already clear signs that U.S. national security threats emanating from the country are by no means a thing of the past. Mounting evidence suggests that an Afghanistan under Taliban rule is posed to again become the global epicenter of Islamist terrorism, just as it was in the days leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Video footage posted to social media this week appears to show Amin al Haq, the former head of al Qaeda‘s elite Black Guard, returning to his native Nangarhar province in a white SUV and accompanied by a large contingent of armed Taliban fighters. While it’s not entirely clear when the video was taken, some U.S. analysts say it is telling that the al Qaeda figure resurfaced so quickly in Afghanistan and that he and his supporters are comfortable being seen in public.
“The confidence to travel and operate out in the open — in plain sight for the first time in a decade — speaks to the marked change in Afghanistan over the last month,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who closely tracks the war in Afghanistan, wrote in an analysis.
The al Qaeda leader served as bin Laden’s head of security during the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, a key moment in the U.S. quest to capture bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks. Al Haq is believed to have escaped into Pakistan in 2007, while bin Laden was ultimately killed in a 2011 U.S. raid at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
With the Biden administration under fire for its handling of the withdrawal and unfolding al Qaeda resurgence, Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley will answer questions at a Pentagon press conference on Tuesday. The two Pentagon leaders are facing their own blowback over how the U.S. endgame in Afghanistan played out.
“If they did not do everything within their authority to stop the hasty withdrawal, they should resign,” nearly 90 retired U.S. generals and other officers said in a scathing letter made public Tuesday.
On the other hand, “if they did do everything within their ability to persuade [President Biden] to not hastily exit the country without ensuring the safety of our citizens and Afghans loyal to America, then they should have resigned in protest as a matter of conscience and public statement,” the letter said.
• Tom Howell Jr. and David R. Sands contributed to this story.