Bone-tired like everyone else in Kabul, Taliban fighters spent the last moments of the 20-year Afghanistan war watching the night skies for the flares that would signal the United States was gone. From afar, U.S. generals watched video screens with the same anticipation.
Relief washed over the war’s winners and the losers when the final U.S. plane took off.
For those in between and left behind — possibly a majority of the allied Afghans who sought U.S. clearance to escape — fear spread about what comes next, given the Taliban’s history of ruthlessness and repression of women. And for thousands of U.S. officials and volunteers working around the world to place Afghan refugees, there is still no rest.
As witnessed by The Associated Press in Kabul and told by people interviewed from all sides, the war ended with episodes of brutality, enduring trauma, a massive if fraught humanitarian effort and moments of grace.
Enemies for two decades were thrust into a bizarre collaboration, joined in a common goal — the Taliban and the United States both wanted the U.S. out. Both sides had a stake in making the last 24 hours work.
In that stretch, the Americans worried that extremists would take aim at the transport planes as they lifted off with the last U.S. troops and officials. Instead, in the green tint of night-vision goggles, the Americans looked down to goodbye waves from Taliban fighters on the tarmac.
The Taliban had worried that the Americans would rig the airport with mines. Instead, the Americans left them with functional fire trucks and front-end loaders along with a bleak panorama of self-sabotaged U.S. military machinery.
After several sleepless nights from the unrelenting thunder of U.S. evacuation flights overhead, Hemad Sherzad joined his fellow Taliban fighters in celebration from his airport post.
“We cried for almost an hour out of happiness” Sherzad told AP. “We yelled a lot — even our throat was in pain.”
In the Pentagon operations center just outside Washington at the same time, you could hear a pin drop as the last C-17 took off. President Joe Biden got the word from his national security adviser.
Some who spoke to AP about the final 24 hours requested anonymity because they were not authorized to identify themselves.
Before leaving Kabul, a U.S. consular officer with 25 years at the State Department was busy processing special visas for qualifying Afghans who had to make it through the gauntlet of Taliban, Afghan military and U.S. checkpoints into the airport. What she saw was wrenching.
“It was horrendous what the people had to go through to get in,” she said. “Some people had spent three to five days waiting. On the inside we could hear the live ammunition being fired to keep the crowds back and the ones who made it in would tell us about Taliban soldiers with whips, sticks with nails in them, flash-bang grenades and tear gas pushing people back.”
Then there were the children who got inside the airport separated from family, as many as 30 a day. UNICEF is now running a center for unaccompanied child evacuees in Qatar.
Over the previous days in Kabul, many Afghans were turned back by the Taliban; others were allowed past them only to be stopped at a U.S. checkpoint. It was madness trying to sort out who satisfied both sides and could make it in.
Some Taliban soldiers appeared to be out for rough justice; others were disciplined, even collegial, over the last hours they spent with U.S. troops at the airport.
Sherzad said he and fellow Taliban soldiers gave cigarettes to the Americans at the airport and snuff to Afghans still in the uniform of their disintegrating army.
By then, he said, “everyone was calm. Just normal chitchat.” Yet, “We were just counting minutes and moments for the time to rise our flag after full independence.”
U.S. efforts to get at-risk Afghans and others onto the airport grounds were complicated by the spread of an electronic code meant for priority evacuees but copied by many others, said a State Department official who was in Kabul until Monday.
“Some really painful trade-offs for everyone involved,” the official said of the selections for evacuation. “Everyone who lived it is haunted by the choices we had to make.”
All of this unfolded under a constant threat stream that manifested itself in the Aug. 26 attack by an offshoot of the Islamic State group that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 29, surveillance showed people loading explosives into a vehicle, U.S. officials said. They launched a Hellfire missile. Neighbors and family members disputed the claims of a vehicle packed with explosives.
Najibullah Ismailzada said his brother-in-law Zemarai Ahmadi had just arrived home from his job working with a Korean charity. His children came out to greet him, and the missile struck. “We lost 10 members of our family,” Ismailzada said. Six were no older than 8.
Monday opened with more danger. Five rockets launched toward the airport — one intercepted by the U.S. anti-rocket system, the rest landing harmlessly.
Again, IS militants, common foe of both the Taliban and U.S., were suspected.
The last 1,500 or so Afghans to get out of the country before the U.S. withdrawal left on civilian transport. In the final act, five C-17 planes came in darkness to retrieve the remaining American troops — fewer than 1,000 — and officials.
One minute to midnight, the last of the five took off.
The American generals relaxed. In Kabul, Taliban fighter Mohammad Rassoul had been watching, too.
“Our eyes were on the sky desperately waiting,” he said. The Taliban flares at the airport finally streaked the sky.
“After 20 years of struggle we achieved our target,” Rassoul said. He dared hope for a better life for his wife, two daughters and son.
“I want my children to grow up under peace,” he said. “Away from drone strikes.”
Akhgar and Faiez reported from Istanbul; Lee, Baldor and Woodward from Washington. Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Kabul, Robert Burns, Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller in Washington and Ellen Knickmeyer in Oklahoma City contributed.