The last U.S. evacuation flight left Kabul’s airport on Monday, officially ending America’s 20-year “forever war” in Afghanistan but leaving hundreds of Americans behind in a country now controlled by the Taliban.
“I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third country nationals, and vulnerable Afghans,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said at a press conference Monday afternoon.
“Every single U.S. service member is now out of Afghanistan, I can say that with 100 percent certainty,” he emphasized.
The last troops left Kabul at 3:29 p.m. ET, said McKenzie. The number of Americans remaining in Afghanistan is in the “very low hundreds,” said McKenzie, who explained that those people will be brought out in the military operation’s “diplomatic sequel” via the State Department.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure, we did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” McKenzie continued. “But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, literally we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out that we wanted to get out and there still would have been people who would have been disappointed with that.”
The final C-17 lifted four days after an Islamic State attack on the airport killed 13 American troops and scores of Afghans trying to flee before the U.S. pullout was complete. It also came just hours after ISIS fighters fired a succession of rockets at the airport, five of which were intercepted by the U.S., military spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said.
The Taliban celebrated the completion of the U.S. withdrawal but lighting up the night sky with gunfire.
“I especially came here at midnight to watch the last soldier leaving our country,” said Mujahid Rahmanin, a Taliban commander in Ghazni province. “My father defeated the Russian power, and I’m part of the Taliban defeating U.S. forces in Graveyard of world empires at age 40.
“I prostrated in thanksgiving, I threw dirt of earth after the last four or five airplanes. We Taliban won the war. USA and NATO, you lost the war. Don’t come back and even look back to the yard of freedom lovers. Yes, one more piece of advice: Don’t intervene anymore, anywhere in the Islamic world.”
A 28-year-old Afghan who tried and failed to get out of the country before the Americans cleared out despaired about what is next.
“I am just scared, scared about everything here,” he said in a message to The Daily Beast. “There is strong storm behind the silence of Taliban, they are not human, they are just wild animals who are destroying humanity.
“[When the U.S. was here], at least we had some hope that troops are here and the world sees us with them. Now nobody can see us because no one is here to show us to the world.
“We just died forever when the last USA troops left us tonight.”
President Joe Biden—who has denied reports that he rejected advice from military commanders to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan—said he planned to address the nation Tuesday about his decision to stick to the Aug. 31 deadline even after it became clear that some Americans and Afghan allies desperate to leave would not get out in time.
“For now, I will report that 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,” Biden said in a statement. “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.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a Monday press briefing that the U.S.’s diplomatic mission will be based out of Doha, Qatar, and that it will continue to hold the Taliban accountable for promises it made if the group hopes to earn international legitimacy and support. That includes the protection of minorities and women’s rights, he said.
Blinken also reiterated the U.S.’s commitment to evacuating any remaining Americans from the embattled nation. He said there were between 100 and 200 Americans still seeking to leave Afghanistan, a figure slightly at odds with the military’s generalized estimation of citizens in the “very low hundreds.”
“The protection and welfare of Americans abroad remains the State Department’s most vital and enduring mission,” Blinken said. “If an American in Afghanistan tells us that they want to stay for now, and then in a week or a month or a year, they reach out and say, ‘I've changed my mind,’ we will help them leave.”
While thousands of Afghans were airlifted after the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, the Taliban on Saturday blocked access to the airport, capping a chaotic week during which an ISIS suicide bomber detonated their explosive vest at an airport entrance and killed more than a dozen U.S. troops as well as many more Afghans waiting to have their travel documents vetted.
In response, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered a drone strike that killed two “high-profile” ISIS-K militants on Saturday, according to military officials. The attack also inadvertently killed a number of civilians, including 10 members of a single family. On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul told all Americans still in the country to avoid the airport altogether, after warning a day earlier of further terrorist attacks to come.
Canada ended its evacuation flights on Aug. 26 after rescuing roughly 3,700 people, while recognizing the fact that it had left “a number of” Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and their families behind. Britain ended its evacuation flights two days later, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson describing a “great sense of regret” over leaving behind as many as 1,100 Afghans eligible for relocation in the UK, along with up to 150 Britons after ferrying some 15,000 people out of the country.
“What I would say to them is that we will shift heaven and earth to help them get out, we will do whatever we can in the second phase,” Johnson said, without specifying a timeline.
The United States kept operating its evacuation flights until Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw, and were able to get more than 120,000 people out since the Taliban took Kabul on Aug. 14.
Afghan refugees have been resettled in Albania, Spain, and Uganda, among other places, along with the U.S. Switzerland, Austria, and Australia have thus far refused to take in significant numbers of Afghans.