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With The Americans Gone, Afghanistan Enters Its Uncertain, Taliban-Led Future

Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the U.S. withdrawal in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi
Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the U.S. withdrawal in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Updated August 31, 2021 at 10:21 AM ET

On Tuesday, for the first time in nearly two decades, Afghans awoke to a country absent U.S. forces, after the last American soldier boarded the last military transport to leave the country just before a Aug. 31 deadline.

The future of the country is uncertain. Some welcome the new Taliban rulers, while many others remember the excesses of their harsh ideology — one that restricts women from education and employment and metes out swift justice to anyone who breaches the group's harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

The Taliban celebrates

Hours after the U.S. departure that ended America's longest war, celebratory gunfire erupted across the country as Taliban fighters took control of Hamid Karzai International Airport — long a potent symbol of Washington's power.

The last flight out of Kabul, which met the Biden administration's Aug. 31 deadline for complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, was described as a historical moment by the Taliban.

"Congratulations to Afghanistan," the group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters at a news conference at the airport. "This victory belongs to us all."

"We liberated our country from a great power," he said after the last U.S. C-17 had left and Taliban fighters dressed in tactical gear and sporting firearms rode into the airport in trucks.

The Taliban's rapid advance on Kabul as U.S.-trained Afghan security forces collapsed had forced a chaotic and deadly final exit, with U.S. forces at the airport scrambling to evacuate American soldiers and contractors, as well as tens of thousands of Afghans desperate to leave country.

The U.S. withdrawal was chaotic

Last week, a suicide bomber who slipped in among the throngs of people crowding outside the airport killed 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 Afghans. The Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility. In retaliation, the U.S. launched a drone strike on individuals who it says were responsible for planning the attack. In a subsequent drone strike, the U.S. targeted a vehicle filled with explosives. Ten Afghan civilians, including seven children, were also reportedly killed.

A man weeps during a mass funeral for members of a family was killed in a U.S. drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday.
Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
A man weeps during a mass funeral for members of a family was killed in a U.S. drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday.

Despite deep concern in the international community and among many Afghans themselves, the Taliban have tried to assuage fears that their rule will be marked by the same level of brutality that became a hallmark of their previous stint in power, from 1996 until they were forced out in the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Afraid of Taliban reprisals once the U.S. departed, Washington airlifted more than 123,000 people out of the country, including about 6,000 American citizens, according to the State Department. Many Afghans who left had aided U.S. forces during the 20-year occupation.

However, some got left behind, says Mary Beth Long, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Long heads a coalition of former government and military officials who assisted in evacuating U.S. citizens and green card holders.

She tells NPR's Morning Edition on Tuesday that the process to get aboard one of the U.S. airlifts was bureaucratic and onerous, and that some people were unable to get through it in time.

Long says her group tried to help one family — "a man and wife and two female children who are Texas residents." They went to "gate after gate after gate" at the airport as the last U.S. flights were leaving Kabul, she says. "And unfortunately when they get there, the gates don't open. And, we've lost contact with that particular group."

A photojournalist who worked for Voice of America told NPR's All Things Considered that he tried for 13 hours to get to the Kabul airport with his family.

For his safety, NPR is only using one of the man's names, Lemar. He fled his hometown in Lashkar Gah in southern Helmand province just two days before it fell to the Taliban. He, his wife and the couple's 7-month-old child are now in Kabul.

Lemar says he didn't anticipate the size and sheer desperation of the crowd at the airport that was "just pushing people and pushing kids."

Now he's stuck — it's not safe to go back to his hometown where the Taliban killed two government officials, he says, adding "No one cared about them. So that would be the same story for me."

And Kabul, he says, is too expensive. For now, he has temporary housing, but he doesn't know how long he will be allowed to stay.

The Taliban's actions have spoken louder than words

Speaking to NPR earlier this month, a Taliban spokesman insisted that no retaliation would take place

"No, there is not any kind of reprisal nor any revenge under those people who are working with the foreign troops," Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Qatar, told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

"[We] have announced a general amnesty, they can lead their normal life and they also contribute to the reconstruction of the country, to people's economic prosperity, to their own prosperity," he said.

But many are skeptical.

In the areas of the country that fell under their control in the lead-up to the Taliban's final assault on the capital, reports emerged of the same kind of brutality that had made the movement infamous and turned the country into a pariah state.

In a region north of Kabul, folk singer Fawad Andarabi was fatally shot by the Taliban just days after they had searched his home, the singer's family says.

Among their edicts when last in power, the Taliban banned music as un-Islamic.

Earlier, a popular comedian in the country's south, Nazar Mohammad, better known as Khasha Zwan, was seen in a video being beaten by Taliban fighters. He was later gunned down. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, promised that the two men seen in the video attacking Khasha Zwan would be put on trial.

The U.S. says it will lead with diplomacy

President Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. will continue to support Afghans through "diplomacy, international influence and humanitarian aid."

"Human rights will be the center of our foreign policy, but the way to do that is not through endless military deployments but through diplomacy, economic tools and rallying the rest of the world for support," Biden said.

With the U.S. exit from Afghanistan complete, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was prepared to be "relentless" in efforts to help individuals escape the country even without boots on the ground.

"A new chapter of America's engagement with Afghanistan has begun," Blinken said in a statement. "It's one in which we will lead with our diplomacy."

"We will continue our relentless efforts to help Americans, foreign nationals and Afghans, leave Afghanistan, if they choose," he said.

"As of today, we have suspended our diplomatic presence in Kabul, and transferred our operations to Doha, Qatar, which will soon be formally notified to Congress," he said. "Given the uncertain security environment and political situation in Afghanistan, it was the prudent step to take."

It is still not clear who will emerge as the leader of Afghanistan, but many believe the day-to-day administration of government will be handled by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Baradar, who is technically the No. 2 leader after Supreme Commander Haibatullah Akhundzada, has been the public face of the Taliban in recent years. He helped negotiate the U.S. withdrawal in Doha with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Not much is known about Baradar, but he is a veteran of the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and also against U.S. forces following the 2001 invasion.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.