20 years of US military occupation in Afghanistan ends with the shocking image of several Chinook helicopters flying over the US Embassy in Kabul to evacuate its personnel in the face of the imminent entry of the Taliban into the Afghan capital. These images have brought back to the minds of many the resounding defeat of the US in Vietnam that would be reflected in the crowds of people on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon, to once again be whisked away by helicopters.
In barely two weeks, the insurgents have managed to take over most of the country, unopposed. The fall of Kandahar and Herat last Friday and the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabab early on Sunday foreshadowed the Taliban's imminent arrival in Kabul, but no one could have imagined that the capital would fall a few hours later and without resistance. The fundamentalists surrounded the Afghan capital on Sunday, warning that they would not enter by force and would carry out a "peaceful" transition. Shortly afterwards, they marched through the streets of the capital as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the country for safety in Central Asia.
The Taliban thus recaptured Kabul after 20 years and, most symbolically, 15 days before the United States is due to complete a full withdrawal of all its troops on 31 August. The US overthrew the fundamentalists in 2001, following an international coalition aimed at fighting terror. Two decades later, and with the withdrawal of US troops from the country, the Taliban now control more territory than they did during the years of the Emirate between 1996 and 2001. The Afghan population, aware of the arrival of the fundamentalists in Kabul, crowded into banks in order to withdraw money, as well as barricading themselves in their homes against a possible wave of looting.
The image that best epitomises the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is that of dozens of militiamen in Ghani's office in the heart of the presidential palace. After a triumphal entry into the very symbol of Afghanistan's institutions, Mullah Baradar Akhund, head of the insurgents' political office in Qatar, declared the end of the war in Afghanistan. "We have achieved a victory that was not expected (...) we must show humility before Allah," said Akhund, according to EFE. The insurgents maintain that the composition of the new regime in Afghanistan will soon become clear, adding that they do not want to live in isolation and call for peaceful international relations.
Another Taliban spokesman, Mohammad Naeem, told Al Jazeera TV in an interview that "We have achieved what we were looking for, which is freedom for our country and independence for our people". "We will not allow anyone to use our land to attack anyone, and we do not want to harm others," he stressed. Despite the insurgents' continuing efforts to portray a less radical image, the Afghan population still remembers the brutality of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which applied Sharia law at its most rigorous.
Women and girls fear that the small gains that have been made in recent years will fade away. Under the Emirate, girls were forbidden to attend school after the age of 10, were forced to marry militiamen and had to be subjugated to a man. In the face of this potential setback in the country, Kabul's international airport has experienced critical hours. The airport is the only possible way out of the country, as all land exits are controlled by the Taliban. At the moment, all commercial flights in the country are suspended, and local media have reported the closure of Afghan airspace. For its part, the US has taken control of air traffic at Kabul airport to facilitate its evacuations and those of its allies.
Several European countries have advanced their evacuation plans. Spain has announced the dispatch of several planes to repatriate its nationals, as well as Afghan collaborators, joining other countries such as Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom that have taken similar measures. However, Russia and Turkey have announced that they will maintain their embassies in Kabul. According to the EFE news agency, the Russian ambassador to Kabul will meet with the insurgents on Tuesday in the Afghan capital. A meeting of the UN Security Council will also take place today to discuss the situation in Afghanistan at the request of the Norwegian and Estonian delegations.
Afghanistan is back to 2001. After 20 years of US occupation, the Central Asian country is back to square one with a Taliban stronger than ever, who have managed to take over the government with little opposition and with the image of the departure of US diplomats from the capital reliving the traumatic defeat in Vietnam.