The final U.S. military planes left Kabul on Monday, ending the longest war in the country’s history and capping a frantic two-week evacuation effort that is leaving hundreds of Americans stranded in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials said the last aircraft took off from the Kabul airport just before 3:30 p.m., hours ahead of President Biden‘s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline.
As America’s 20-year war ended, Mr. Biden did not address the American people on camera Monday evening. In a written statement, the president praised the massive logistical undertaking that was the Kabul airlift — a historic achievement by any measure but one marred by tragedy after 13 U.S. troops were killed and another 18 wounded by an ISIS-K terrorist attack on the airport last week.
“The past 17 days have seen our troops execute the largest airlift in U.S. history, evacuating over 120,000 U.S. citizens, citizens of our allies, and Afghan allies of the United States,” Mr. Biden said. “They have done it with unmatched courage, professionalism and resolve. Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended.”
But Pentagon officials admitted that Americans were still in Afghanistan as the final plane departed, seemingly contradicting the president’s pledge earlier this month that no U.S. citizen would be left behind.
“We think the citizens that were not brought out number in the low, very low, hundreds,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday.
And Taliban fighters were openly exultant as the last U.S. military plane took off from Kabul‘s lone international airport, firing guns and launching firecrackers as they cemented control of the country.
“The last five aircraft have left, it’s over!” said Hemad Sherzad, a Taliban fighter stationed at the airport that was the frenzied center of the U.S. airlift, told the Associated Press. “I cannot express my happiness in words. … Our 20 years of sacrifice worked.”
“American soldiers left the Kabul airport, and our nation got its full independence,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said early Tuesday.
Stuck in Afghanistan
Monday’s formal conclusion to the war in Afghanistan ends a key chapter in U.S. history. The conflict claimed 2,461 American lives and left more than 20,000 American service members wounded.
Along with the end to the American combat mission in Iraq announced earlier this summer, the exit from Afghanistan closes the book on two conflicts that spanned four presidencies and helped define a generation in the post 9/11 era. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, toppling a Taliban government that provided safe haven for al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and implemented a strict Islamist regime that all but eliminated women’s rights.
While it claims to have softened some of its stances, that very same Islamist Taliban movement is now back in power after the rapid collapse two weeks ago of an Afghan government that the U.S. spent two decades building and an Afghan military that American taxpayers funded to the tune of nearly $100 billion.
Despite public promises, there are now very real concerns about whether Taliban leaders will allow remaining Americans and Afghan allies to leave the country on commercial planes moving forward.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans blasted the apparent willingness to leave Americans behind and cast the withdrawal as a moral outrage that will forever stain this presidency.
“This national disgrace is the direct result of President Biden’s cowardice and incompetence,” Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, said in a statement. “The president made the decision to break our word to our Afghan partners. The president made the decision to tell one lie after another as the crisis unfolded. The president made the morally indefensible decision to leave Americans behind. Dishonor was the president’s choice. May history never forget this cowardice.”
The Defense Department said about 6,000 Americans were flown out of the country during the evacuation effort.
Those who are still there, analysts say, are likely to be used as pawns by the Taliban.
“My concern is we may be substantially undercounting the number of Americans who are going to be left behind,” said Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator under former President Trump.
The Taliban “are going to use the evacuation of these Americans to extract concessions, like the unfreezing of assets. They’re going to insist on diplomatic recognition,” Mr. Sales told The Washington Times. “They’re going to insist on sanctions relief. The White House needs to rule that out in no uncertain terms. Getting our people home is non-negotiable.”
In his statement, Mr. Biden said that it was the consensus view of military leaders that sticking by the Aug. 31 deadline was actually the best way to get the remaining Americans back home.
“It was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and of all of our commanders on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned. Their view was that ending our military mission was the best way to protect the lives of our troops, and secure the prospects of civilian departures for those who want to leave Afghanistan in the weeks and months ahead,” the president said.
Some of those same senior military leaders argued against Mr. Biden‘s full withdrawal from Afghanistan, warning that such a move could destabilize the country and lead to a resurgence of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
Recent Pentagon and United Nations reports have concluded that the Taliban retains a close relationship with al Qaeda, raising fears that Mr. Biden‘s withdrawal could spark a major resurgence of terrorism that will ultimately threaten the U.S. and its allies.
On the ground in Kabul, 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 US C-17 military cargo jet shortly before it lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Monday. At the Pentagon, officials made clear that the military is not expected to be involved in any post-Aug. 31 evacuation efforts of Americans.
“The State Department is going to continue to work across many different levers to facilitate that transportation,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “Right now, we do not anticipate a military role.”
In the final days of the evacuation mission, U.S. troops destroyed an array of military equipment at their airfield, a term they call “demilitarization.” About 70 heavily-armored MRAP trucks, 27 Humvees, and 73 military aircraft were turned into wreckage.
As that process unfolded, U.S. troops on the ground repeatedly found themselves in grave danger. The Aug. 26 ISIS-K attack at the Kabul airport resulted in the deadliest day for Americans in Afghanistan in over a decade. More than 160 Afghans also died in the assault.
On Monday, U.S. military defensive systems repelled an ISIS-K rocket attack aimed at troops guarding the airport. And a day earlier, an American drone struck a car filled with explosives that officials say was destined for the facility.
There were widespread reports Monday that Afghan civilians were killed as a result of that drone strike. Military officials said they are investigating those claims.
“We are still assessing the results of this strike, which we know disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat to the airport,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in a statement. “We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties. It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further.”
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” he said.
AP reported that a divided U.N. Security Council pressed the Taliban to stick to its public promises that foreigners and Afghans would be free to leave. A resolution sponsored by the U.S., Britain and France called on the Taliban to let humanitarian aid flow, respect human rights and oppose terrorism.
“The eyes of all Afghans are watching this council, and they expect clear support from the international community. And this lack of unity is a disappointment for us and for them,” French Deputy Ambassador Nathalie Broadhurst said after the vote, in which Russia and China abstained.
• Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is also based in part on wire reports.