With the U.S. troop withdrawal complete, the Taliban marked its takeover in its birthplace, Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, with a victory lap Wednesday showcasing a wide array of plundered American hardware.
A Black Hawk helicopter flew circles over the Taliban's heartland, while below fighters stood aboard captured Humvees as the group paraded their newly acquired equipment.
The Taliban's victory celebration, marking the final withdrawal of U.S. troops, follows the group's astonishing two-week takeover that capped a simmering 20-year insurgency.
On the highway toward Afghanistan's second-biggest city of Kandahar, a long line of green armored fighting vehicles drove in single file down, most with white-and-black Taliban flags attached to aerials.
Fighters manned the controls of the multi-purpose trucks – used by U.S., NATO and Afghan forces during the two-decade war – while others clambered over the vehicles at Ayno Maina, a town on the outskirts of the city.
Among the light weapons cradled by the militants were American M16 rifles. Pick-up trucks laden with supporters rolled past the convoy of military vehicles, some armed with heavy weapons and machine guns.
At least one Black Hawk helicopter buzzed overhead, suggesting someone from the former Afghan army was at the controls as the Taliban lack qualified pilots.
An ethnic Pashtun heartland, Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban and where the hardline group rose to power in 1996. By 2001, when U.S.-led forces invaded, the Taliban had seized control of most of the country.
At Kandahar Cricket Ground, hundreds gathered to listen to speeches heaping praise on the Taliban following their successful offensive last month and pouring scorn on the United States.
Elder leaders sat in the shade in the players' dugout, reclining on armchairs behind wooden coffee tables. Others sat crossed-legged on the grass, while many more gathered in the terrace stands to watch. Armed fighters in camouflage fatigues stood in front of the crowds.
"Our common enemy who vowed to bring economic prosperity to our land failed to do so," a Taliban recruiter named Saqeb said. "They claimed to bring a civilized system. Go and take a look at the airport where all the planes are left in the middle.
"America did not just attack our young military men. America has corrupted our media. It took away our culture. It has trampled our economy."
The Taliban's secretive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada is living in Kandahar, the group said Sunday, after years in the shadows.
Word had spread that he would make an appearance Wednesday, but he did not show up, leaving the city's new governor to address the crowd.
In footage posted online of the buildup to the event, another helicopter flew overhead trailing a Taliban flag as fighters waved beneath.
A day earlier, thousands of Taliban supporters had poured onto the streets of Kandahar, waving flags and shouting "God is greatest" in celebration of the final U.S. withdrawal.
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