Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and Ambassador Ross Wilson, charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, were the final Americans to step aboard the last U.S. military C-17 cargo jet shortly before it lifted off from the Afghan capital’s sole international airport Monday.
All told about 6,000 U.S. citizens were evacuated from Afghanistan. They represent the “vast majority” of those who wanted to leave the war-torn country, Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters Monday.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to,” he said. “But if we had stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out. It’s a tough situation.”
It was both the end of a sometimes frantic U.S.-led evacuation from Afghanistan and the last action of a nearly 20-year mission in the war-torn country that began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. It was not a cheap undertaking. In addition to more than $2 trillion spent over the past two decades, America’s longest war cost the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops and more than 20,000 wounded in battle.
Over the past 18 days, the military conducted the largest non-combatant evacuation in history, Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. During that time, about 79,000 civilians were evacuated from the airport. The figure includes 6,000 Americans and more than 73,000 third-country nationals and at-risk Afghans, he said.
On Aug. 15, the day after President Biden formally ordered the evacuation, Gen. McKenzie was in Doha, the capital of Qatar, speaking with Taliban officials about the mission.
“I delivered a message. We would not tolerate interference and we would forcefully defend ourselves,” he said. The victorious Taliban “promised not to interfere with our withdrawal.”
Military commanders factored in a well-equipped and formidable Afghan military when they crafted their proposals on withdrawing American forces from the country. But the complete collapse of the government in less than two weeks rendered those plans moot. U.S. officials had to immediately switch from working alongside an ally to “initiating a pragmatic relationship of necessity with a longtime enemy,” Gen. McKenzie said.
“They wanted us out [and] we wanted to get out with our people and with our friends and partners,” said Gen. McKenzie, who served two tours in Afghanistan earlier in his career.
In the final days of the evacuation mission, U.S. troops destroyed an array of military equipment at their airfield, including about 70 heavily-armored MRAP trucks, 27 Humvees, and 73 military aircraft.
“Most of [the planes] were non-mission-capable to begin with but certainly they’ll never be able to fly again,” Gen. McKenzie said.
Commanders at the airfield also directed the destruction of a defense weapon known as a C-RAM, Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar system, that had been used only hours before to handle a rocket attack against U.S personnel. Gen. McKenzie said they opted not to touch equipment such as fire trucks that are needed for normal airport operations.
About 2,000 ISIS-K fighters — who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack last week that killed 13 US troops — are believed to be on the run in Afghanistan after the victorious Taliban released them from government custody during their advance.
“I do believe that the Taliban is going to have their hands full with ISIS-K. They remain a very lethal force,” Gen. McKenzie said.
He predicted that the State Department would be able to help any Americans still in Afghanistan now that the U.S. military mission there is complete.
“While the military evacuation is complete, the diplomatic mission to ensure that additional U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans who want to leave continues,” Gen. McKenzie said. “The military phase of this operation has ended. The diplomatic sequel will now begin.”