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'Great victory' as Taliban mark turbulent first year in power

Many Taliban fighters gathered in Kabul's central Massoud Square, where they displayed the regime's white banners and performed a traditional dance. ©AFP

Kabul (AFP) - Taliban fighters chanted victory slogans next to the US embassy in Kabul Monday as they marked the first anniversary of their return to power in Afghanistan following a turbulent year that saw women's rights crushed and a humanitarian crisis worsen.

Exactly a year ago, the hardline Islamists captured Kabul after a nationwide lightning offensive against government forces just as US-led troops were ending two decades of intervention in a conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives.

"This great victory came after countless sacrifices and hardships," Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy prime minister and co-founder of the Taliban movement, said on Twitter.

"On this day...the Islamic Emirate brought the world's superpower and its allies to their knees and Afghans gained their independence," added Baradar, who in 2020 signed a deal with Washington offering security guarantees in return for the withdrawal of foreign forces. 

The last American troops left on August 31, ending a chaotic evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans who had rushed to Kabul's airport in the hope of boarding a flight out of the country.

Images of crowds storming the airport, climbing atop aircraft -- and some clinging to a departing US military cargo plane as it rolled down the runway -- aired on news bulletins around the world.

"We fulfilled the obligation of jihad and liberated our country," said Niamatullah Hekmat, a fighter who entered the capital on August 15 last year just hours after then-president Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

"The time when we entered Kabul, and when the Americans left, those were moments of joy."

'Life has lost its meaning'

Many Taliban fighters gathered in Kabul's central Massoud Square, where they displayed the regime's white banners and performed a traditional victory dance, some holding weapons and others taking pictures on their mobile phones.

"We all are happy that we are celebrating our independence in front of the US embassy," fighter Aminullah Sufi Omar told AFP.

However, for many ordinary Afghans -- particularly women -- the return of the Taliban has only increased hardships, with aid agencies saying that half the country's 38 million people face extreme poverty.

Initially, the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterised their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

But many restrictions have been imposed on women to comply with the movement's austere vision of Islam.

Tens of thousands of girls have been shut out of secondary schools, while women have been barred from returning to many government jobs.

And in May, they were ordered to fully cover up in public, including their faces, ideally with a burqa.

"Since the day they have come, life has lost its meaning," said Ogai Amail, a resident of Kabul.

"Everything has been snatched from us, they have even entered our personal space," she added.

Top Taliban officials in Kabul gathered at the auditorium of the state television channel to mark the anniversary, while in the movement's power base in Kandahar, a small group of women dressed in burqas and supportive of the new regime marched in the streets.

'Facing hardships'

Taliban fighters on Saturday dispersed a rare women's rights rally by firing gunshots into the air and beating some protesters. 

"Our call for justice was silenced with gunfire, but today we are pleading from inside our home," Munisa Mubariz said on Monday.

She was among about 30 women who gathered at an undisclosed location to stage an indoor protest.

The women, who mostly had their faces uncovered, posted photographs online of themselves holding banners, including one that read: "Afghanistan's history is tarnished with the closure of girls' schools."

While Afghans acknowledge a decline in violence since the Taliban seized power -- barring some deadly attacks by the jihadist Islamic State group -- the humanitarian crisis has left many helpless.

"People coming to our shops are complaining so much of high prices that we shopkeepers have started hating ourselves," said Noor Mohammad, a shopkeeper from Kandahar.

The country is in economic crisis, with its overseas assets frozen by Washington and aid curtailed in order to keep funds out of the Taliban's hands.

No country has officially recognised the new government.

"All those powers who came here have lost here, but today we want good relations with everybody," said fighter Hazi Mubariz.

For Taliban fighters, the joy of victory overshadows the current economic crisis.

"We might be poor, we might be facing hardships, but the white flag of Islam will now fly high forever in Afghanistan", said a fighter guarding a public park in Kabul.

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