Thousands of soldiers spent two harrowing weeks protecting airlift from tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape
The United States has completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war and closing a chapter in military history that will likely be remembered for colossal failures, broken promises, and a frantic final exit.
Hours before President Joe Biden’s Tuesday deadline to close a final airlift and thus end the US war, Air Force transport planes transported a remaining contingent of troops from Kabul airport.
Thousands of soldiers have spent two harrowing weeks protecting a hurried and risky airlift from tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape a country once again ruled by Taliban militants.
Announcing the completion of the evacuation and war effort, General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 pm Washington time, or one minute before midnight on Kabul.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken estimated the number of Americans left behind at less than 200, “probably close to 100,” and said the State Department will continue to work to remove them.
He praised the military-led evacuation as heroic and historic and said the US diplomatic presence would shift to Doha, Qatar.
The airport became a US-controlled island, the last stand in a 20-year war that cost more than 2,400 American lives.
The final hours of the evacuation were marked by extraordinary drama. US troops faced the daunting task of getting the final evacuees onto planes while also removing themselves and some of their equipment, even as they monitored repeated threats – and at least two real attacks – from the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
A suicide bombing on Aug. 26 killed 13 US soldiers and 169 Afghans.
The final withdrawal fulfilled Biden’s promise to end what he called the “War Forever” that began in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania.
His decision, announced in April, reflected the national fatigue of the conflict in Afghanistan. Now he faces condemnation at home and abroad, not so much for ending the war but for dealing with a final evacuation that unfolded in chaos and raised doubts about US credibility.
More than 1,100 soldiers from coalition countries and more than 100,000 Afghan forces and civilians died, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.
The Pentagon said some Americans who wanted to leave Afghanistan were unable to reach Kabul airport to board evacuation flights.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told reporters that the United States believed it had managed to evacuate the “vast majority” of Americans who wanted to leave but were aware that some of them could not leave.
Gen McKenzie said on the final American flights out of Afghanistan: “We weren’t able to bring any Americans out.”
The last American civilians were evacuated about 12 hours before the departure of American forces.
Gen McKenzie says the effort to bring Americans out will now fall through diplomatic channels.
The Taliban proclaimed “complete independence” from Afghanistan after the last American soldiers left.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that “US soldiers left the airport in Kabul and our nation gained its full independence.”
Shortly after the US soldiers left, the Taliban marched to Kabul International Airport. Standing on the runway, Taliban leaders promised to protect the country, quickly reopen the airport and grant amnesty to former opponents.
Getting the airport back up and running is just one of the considerable challenges facing the Taliban as they govern a nation of 38 million that for two decades survived on billions of dollars in foreign aid.
“Afghanistan is finally free,” Hekmatullah Wasiq, a senior Taliban official, told The Associated Press at the track.
Wasiq also urged people to return to work and reiterated the Taliban’s pledge to offer a general amnesty.
“People have to be patient,” he said. “Slowly let’s get everything back to normal. This will take some time. ”
Just hours earlier, the US military had completed its largest noncombatant airlift operation in history.
By Tuesday morning, the signs of the chaos of the past few days were still visible. In the terminal, looted clothes and luggage were strewn across the floor, alongside bundles of documents.
Concertina wires tear apart separate areas as cars overturn and parked vehicles block routes around the civilian airport – a sign of measures taken to protect against possible suicide car bombs entering the facility.
Vehicles carrying the Taliban raced back and forth along the single runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport on the military side of the airfield. Before dawn, heavily armed Taliban fighters roamed hangars, passing some of the seven CH-46 helicopters the State Department used in its evacuations before rendering them unusable.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid addressed the assembled members of the Badri unit. “I hope you are very cautious when dealing with the nation,” he said. “Our nation has suffered war and invasion and the people no longer have tolerance.”
At the end of their comments, the Badri fighters shouted, “God is the greatest!”
In an interview with Afghan state television, Mujahid also discussed the resumption of operations at the airport, which remains a key option for anyone wishing to leave the country.
“Our technical team will be checking the airport’s technical and logistical needs,” he said. “If we can fix everything on our own, we won’t need help. If technical or logistical help is needed to repair the destruction, we can ask Qatar or Turkey for help”.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of the US Armed Forces Central Command, said earlier that troops had disabled 27 Humvees and 73 aircraft so they could not be used again. He said troops failed to blow up the equipment needed to eventually restart airport operations.
The airport has seen chaotic and deadly scenes since the Taliban attacked Afghanistan and took over Kabul on 15 August. Thousands of Afghans besieged the airport, some dying after desperately hanging onto the side of an American C-17 military jet. Last week, an Islamic State suicide attack at an airport gate killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel.
During the evacuation, US forces helped evacuate more than 120,000 US, foreign and Afghan citizens, according to the White House. Coalition forces also evacuated their citizens and Afghans. But for all who left, foreign nations and the US acknowledged that they didn’t evacuate everyone who wanted to go.
On Tuesday, after a night in which the Taliban soared triumphantly into the air, guards now vaguely on duty warded off onlookers and those who somehow still hoped to catch a flight.
“After 20 years, we have defeated the Americans,” said Mohammad Islam, a Taliban guard at the airport in Logar province, holding a Kalashnikov rifle.
“They left and now our country is free.”
“Of course what we want. We want shariah (Islamic law), peace and stability,” he added.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative who oversaw America’s negotiations with the Taliban, wrote on Twitter that “Afghans face a moment of decision and opportunity” after the withdrawal.
“The future of your country is in your hands. They will choose their path with full sovereignty,” he wrote. “This is the chance to end the war too.”
But the Taliban faces what could be a series of major crises by fully taking over the government. Most of the billions of dollars Afghanistan holds in foreign reserves is now frozen in the United States, putting pressure on its devaluing Afghan currency.
Civil servants are not receiving their latest salaries.
Abdul Maqsood, a traffic policeman for the past 10 years on duty near the airport, said he had not paid for the past four months.
“We keep coming to work, but we’re not getting paid,” he said.
Medical equipment remains scarce, while thousands of people who fled the Taliban’s advance continue to live in precarious conditions. A major drought has also cut off the country’s food supply, making its imports even more important and increasing the risk of people going hungry.
Also at issue are the rights of women, who faced oppression under the previous Taliban regime.
The schools were reopened and, on Tuesday morning, dozens of elementary school students went to schools in a neighborhood near the airport. The Taliban ordered schools to be segregated, but this is often not imposed on younger children.