Taliban puts on show of force to celebrate anniversary of U.S. withdrawal

KABUL — Taliban fighters and senior leaders gathered Wednesday for a celebration at Bagram air base, once the largest American military base in Afghanistan, to mark one year since U.S. and NATO forces withdrew from the country.

Images released by Taliban media show fighters marching in Western-style uniforms, followed by columns of armored vehicles bearing the group’s black-and-white flag moving down one of the main runways. Helicopters flew above the crowd.

“We are gathered here to celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told local media attending the ceremony. “I am proud that our country was liberated on this day and American troops were forced to leave Afghanistan,” he said.

The departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan marked the end of over two decades of war here, but did not lead to a negotiated peace. Afghan government security forces collapsed in the face of Taliban attacks and when the group reached Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani fled, effectively handing over the capital.

Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan is more secure for most Afghans, but civil liberties and the rights of women are severely restricted. The country remains internationally isolated and a growing economic crisis has plunged millions deeper into poverty.

In a video broadcast by the Taliban’s media wing, Mohammad Hassan Akhund, the acting prime minister, said the group was left with nothing after the previous government collapsed.

“The foreigners took everything with them when they left, and imposed sanctions on Afghanistan, which have resulted in poverty and hunger,” he said. But much of the military equipment flaunted at Bagram appeared to be what U.S. and NATO forces left behind in the last days of a hasty withdrawal.

Foreign media outlets were banned from covering the event by the Taliban, which cited security concerns.

The United States and other Western powers had hoped that economically isolating the Taliban would force the group to moderate. Such “pressures,” Akhund warned, “will not give any result.” He called instead for greater engagement with the country’s new leaders.

In central Kabul, hundreds of other Taliban fighters gathered to fly flags and spray glittery foam into the air as they cheered the country’s “independence day.”

Abdul Hakim Saih brought his five grandchildren to watch the festivities. Originally from Logar province, the family only moved to Kabul after the Taliban takeover when Saih’s son — a Taliban fighter — was given a position with the group’s intelligence forces.

“In Logar we were always on the run, moving from place to place to escape night raids and bombings,” he said, explaining that the violence was particularly hard on the children. His family no longer has to fear for their safety. “It’s a better life now,” he said.

The complete withdrawal of U.S. forces began under the Trump administration and the policy decision was upheld by President Biden, who said the exit would be conducted “responsibly, deliberately and safely.”

But after a set of swift Taliban gains suddenly left the Afghan capital surrounded, diplomats, Afghan officials and aid workers scrambled to flee the country. Chaos engulfed the Kabul airport for weeks as Taliban fighters entered the presidential palace and tens of thousands rushed to escape.

Some Afghans who tried and were unable to flee on the U.S. airlift say they now feel secure under the Taliban. Others remain in hiding, afraid for their lives because of connections to U.S. and NATO forces or activist groups. A year on, some are still hoping for a chance to get out.

One former Afghan soldier said the day marks the anniversary of his “abandonment” by the United States.

“Today I feel shattered. We were always assured by the United States that they would stand with us,” he said. For over 10 years, he served as a commando in one of the elite Afghan military units that worked closely with U.S. forces.

Like others in this report, he spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

During the withdrawal last year, the former officer waited outside Kabul airport for days. “The Americans inside kept saying they would send cars to pick us up, but they never came.”

Fearing detention or death if the Taliban found him, he fled Kabul. He has spent the past year moving from province to province, and village to village.

“Maybe it’s an independence day for the Taliban. But for me, I’ve become like a prisoner.”

Afghan female activists described similar frustrations.

“We are restricted and confined at home; we are not allowed to study, or work or engage in social activities,” said one woman in Kabul.

Another activist who fled Afghanistan after she was detained for participating in a peaceful protest said the celebrations in Kabul “are making a mockery of an independence day.”

“I don’t know what kind of independence they are talking about, maybe for [the Taliban], but not the people of Afghanistan,” she said.

At the Taliban celebration in central Kabul, Najmullah Basirat, 25, said he feels “indifferent” about the changes over the past year. He worked for and supported the previous government, but never wanted U.S. and NATO troops to remain in his country forever.

“As an Afghan, I wanted foreign forces to withdraw. I don’t believe our country should ever rely on any outside forces,” he said. Now, he says he supports the Taliban.

As long as his country is led by Afghans and provides security and basic services, “I would support any government,” he said.

Susannah George is The Washington Post’s Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief. She previously headed the Associated Press’s Baghdad bureau and covered national security and intelligence from the AP’s Washington bureau
Taliban puts on show of force to celebrate anniversary of U.S. withdrawal