It was a decisive and humbling final chapter to the United States’ longest war, a two-decade effort that unraveled spectacularly in the space of a few weeks.
Standing on the runway on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid framed the militant group’s dramatic takeover of Afghanistan as a nationalist success, telling a small crowd: “This victory belongs to us all.”
But for thousands of Afghans, the final Western flights took with them a last chance to leave the country. Many now fear their new realities; in particular, women, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, journalists and others face brutal treatment under the group’s radical interpretation of Sharia Law.
And for the Taliban’s leaders, a rapid transition to national governance beckons. The group has no experience of running a traditional administration, and showed little familiarity with geopolitics during its five-year reign two decades ago. Their sincerity and capability now has repercussions for 38 million Afghans, many of whom will be displaced or thrust into economic crisis.
Afghanistan is a very different country to the one the Taliban ruled between 1996 and 2001. Most Afghans don’t even remember that era — more than 60% of the country is aged under 25. It is urbanizing, diverse, and better connected to the world, all of which place it in stark contrast to the war-torn nation the Taliban conquered 25 years ago.
What the Taliban now do with that country is arguably the world’s most pressing geopolitical question.
“This is one of the most dramatic changes in government in the modern era,” Benjamin Petrini, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told CNN.
The West is “pulling out not only ourselves but all the human resources that have worked with us for 20 years,” he said. “Those will be replaced with what? That’s a question mark.”
It’s a question that reverberates not just through the region, but around the world. As they weigh up whether and how to recognize the country, global governments have mostly been unmoved by the Taliban’s repeated promises that they have changed.
Its leadership has repeatedly insisted that women will play a prominent role in society, that they will not seek retribution against their political enemies, and that their regime will be “inclusive” — but they have not shared details of what they mean by their Sharia Law-driven social policies, and their fighters have repeatedly shown less restraint in recent months.
That leaves a number of possible roads forward for Afghanistan — ranging from cooperation and restraint to civil war and global ostracism.
“I don’t see how (the Taliban) are going to sell out all of the people they’ve been fighting with for 20 years,” Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at London-based global affairs think tank Chatham House, told CNN — raising the specter that the group will turn inward and embrace the radical tendencies of many of their soldiers. “And then what?”
What kind of government will the Taliban run?
The Taliban’s rule at the end of the millennium was a global anomaly. “They weren’t a government,” said Price, who monitored the country at the time for the Economist Intelligence Unit. The group’s priority was “literally just about imposing Sharia Law,” he said.
They did so brutally — floggings and public executions were common, and women were mostly consigned to their homes.
But now the group’s leaders are in unfamiliar territory. “When they arrived last time around, it was after a civil war. There was nothing. Now they’re inheriting a system of government that, however imperfect, does exist,” Price said.
“The question that no one knows the answer to is how the Taliban conceive of government.”
As it assembles some form of political administration, observers are keenly watching whether Taliban leaders will allow for a diversity of viewpoints.
“To what extent are the Taliban going to be able to lead an inclusive process of government; are they going to be able to include different factions of society, and other ethnic groups?” asks Petrini, echoing the queries of the world’s leaders.