The ghostly green image of the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division is one which may haunt American political and military leaders for generations to come.
His face expressionless, he boarded the final flight out of Afghanistan a minute before midnight. The moment was captured with a night vision camera from a C-17 transport plane before it took off from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport.
Heavily-armed Taliban fighters quickly seized the airport, strolling into hangars and passing CH-46 helicopters the US State Department had used in its frantic evacuation before rendering them unflyable. After Taliban leaders paraded across the airport’s tarmac, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: “The world should have learned its lesson and this is the enjoyable moment of victory.”
Bursts of gunfire erupted throughout the night in Kabul as the Taliban celebrated the US withdrawal — 32 years after Soviet general Boris Gromov led an armoured column across the Friendship Bridge to Uzbekistan when the Red Army retreated from Afghanistan following a nine-year war. Speaking to fighters of the Taliban’s 313 Badri special forces unit, Mujahid also appeared to warn against revenge killings and other retaliation against Afghans who had worked with US and UK forces.
“I hope you will be very cautious in dealing with the nation,” he added.
But as dawn broke this morning, millions of Afghans woke in fear of the Taliban re-imposing the brutal regime it inflicted on the impoverished country before being toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there was a “new reality” but urged Taliban leaders to abide by commitments made on human rights, safe passage for people still seeking to leave the country, and not to allow it to become a safe haven for terrorists.
However, there were already reports of executions of former Afghan soldiers, a popular folk singer and a comedian.
In other major developments:
President Joe Biden was due to address America to defend his decision to complete the pull-out of US troops amid widespread criticism that it will fuel the spread of Islamist extremism.
Mr Raab said the number of British nationals still in Afghanistan was now believed to be in the low hundreds, with more than 17,000 civilians having been evacuated by the UK since April. However, there were reports that up to 7,000 people, who may be eligible to come to the UK, were still trying to leave.
Some Afghans who had worked with British forces and officials were receiving “night letters” from the Taliban telling them to hand themselves in to special courts or face the death penalty.
Huge queues grew in Kabul at banks with people desperate to withdraw money as prices spiralled.
Tens of thousands of Afghans were heading towards Pakistan and Iran seeking to leave.
Before the last US troops left, they disabled more than 70 aircraft, as well as armoured vehicles and a missile defence system at the airport.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons defence committee, tweeted: “Our exodus from Afghanistan has left the world a more dangerous place.”
The US, UK and other nations evacuated 123,000 civilians, according to military sources. But as the final five US military transport aircraft flew out, they left behind hundreds of American citizens, as well as the UK nationals, and thousands of desperate Afghans who could not get out and now must rely on the Taliban to allow their departure.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing: “There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.”
Lord David Richards, Britain’ former Chief of the Defence Staff, criticised the UK and US response to the situation in Afghanistan. He told BBC Breakfast: “A lot of lives have been lost, not just British service lives, also many Afghans, and hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives are now facing ruin when they had some hope. I’m afraid our political leadership, and in particular President Biden over the last six months, have let those people down, us and the Afghans.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mr Raab pledged to continue to try to get people out of Afghanistan.
The war cost the lives of nearly 2,500 US troops, 457 UK military personnel, and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost some $2 trillion (£1.45 trillion).
Although it succeeded in driving the Taliban from power and stopped Afghanistan being used as a base by al Qaeda to attack the United States, it ended with the hardline Islamic militants controlling more of the country than they ever did during their previous rule from 1996 to 2001. Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the US withdrawal a “national disgrace”.