A handout photo of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul.
Handout | Getty Images News
WASHINGTON — America’s longest war is over.
The United States finished its withdrawal efforts from Kabul’s airport, the Pentagon said Monday, effectively ending a 20-year conflict that began not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The last C-17 military cargo aircraft departed Hamid Karzai International Airport Monday afternoon, according to U.S. Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, completing a massive evacuation effort that flew more than 116,000 people out of Afghanistan over the past two weeks.
“While the military evacuation is complete, the diplomatic mission to ensure additional U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans who want to leave continues,” added McKenzie, who oversees the U.S. military mission in the region.
As of early Monday, U.S. and allied forces evacuated 1,200 people out of the Afghan capital on 26 military cargo aircraft flights in a 24-hour period, according to the latest figures from the White House. Since the mass evacuations began on Aug. 14, approximately 116,700 people have been airlifted out of Afghanistan.
About 122,300 people have been evacuated since the end of July, including about 5,500 U.S. citizens and their families. McKenzie said that there were no Americans on the last five flights out of Kabul.
“We were not able to bring any Americans out, that activity probably ended about 12 hours before our exit. Although we continue the outreach and would have been prepared to bring them on until the very last minute, but none of them made it to the airport,” McKenzie said.
The four-star general added that there were no evacuees left at the airfield when the last C-17 took off and confirmed that all U.S. service members and troops from the Afghan military force along with their families were also airlifted out on Monday.
McKenzie said that the Taliban did not have direct knowledge of the U.S military’s time of departure, adding that commanders on the ground “chose to keep that information very restricted.”
“But they were actually very helpful and useful to us as we close down operations,” McKenzie said of the Taliban.
Taliban fighters patrol in Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.
Rahmat Gul | AP
The Taliban return to power
The U.S. began its war in Afghanistan in October 2001, weeks after the Sept. 11. The Taliban at the time provided sanctuary to al-Qaida, the group that planned and carried out the devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Since then, about 2,500 U.S. service members died in the conflict, which also claimed the lives of over 100,000 Afghan troops, police personnel and civilians.
Now the Taliban are yet again in power. In the final weeks of a planned exodus of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban carried out a succession of shocking battlefield gains.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by the Afghan military, which has long been assisted by U.S. and NATO coalition forces, the Taliban seized the presidential palace in Kabul on Aug. 15.
In April, President Joe Biden ordered the full withdrawal of approximately 3,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. Last month, Biden gave an updated timeline and said the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan will end by Aug. 31.
Following the Taliban takeover, Biden defended his decision to depart the war-torn country.
“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said a day after Afghanistan collapsed to the Taliban.
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” Biden said. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future,” he added.
Earlier on Monday, as many as five rockets were intercepted by U.S. missile defenses near Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the site where U.S. forces are sprinting to carry out final evacuation flights since the Taliban gained control of the country two weeks ago.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that Biden was briefed on the rocket attack and reconfirmed that commanders should prioritize the protection of U.S. forces on the ground.
The Pentagon said Saturday that it had begun its retrograde process — the withdrawal of U.S. service members. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that less than 5,000 service members remain in Afghanistan, adding that the U.S. would no longer provide an exact number due to security conditions.
On Monday, Kirby said the U.S. is communicating with the Taliban about the evacuation mission.
“Our commanders on the ground remain in communication with Taliban leaders around the airfield to deconflict and to prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings, and so far that communication has been effective,” Kirby said during a Pentagon briefing.
When asked about the security situation, Kirby described the threats as dynamic but added that the U.S. will “maintain the capability to protect ourselves and defend ourselves as we continue to complete the retrograde.”
A State Department spokesman said Saturday that approximately 250 Americans are still seeking evacuation.
Over the weekend, the U.S. conducted two known drone strikes against ISIS-K members believed to be involved in planning attacks against U.S. forces in Kabul. The strikes followed a suicide bombing attack that resulted in the deaths of 13 American service members.
The Pentagon said Sunday that it was assessing the results of the drone strikes, following reports of civilian casualties.
“We are aware of reports of civilian casualties following our strike on a vehicle in Kabul today,” U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement.
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” he added.
Final U.S. casualties of Afghan war
The Pentagon on Saturday released the names of the 13 U.S. service members killed after a suicide bomber detonated an explosive near the gates of Kabul’s airport.
The Aug. 26 attack near the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport, which killed 11 Marines, one Navy sailor and one Army soldier, is under investigation.
On Sunday, the president and first lady Jill Biden traveled to Dover Air Force Base to meet privately with the families of the fallen before observing the dignified transfer of American flag-draped cases from a C-17 military cargo plane to a vehicle.
The remains were flown from Kabul to Kuwait and then to Germany before arriving in Dover.
US President Joe Biden attends the dignified transfer of the remains of a fallen service member at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, August, 29, 2021.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
A dignified transfer is a solemn process in which the remains of fallen service members are carried from an aircraft to a waiting vehicle. It is conducted for every U.S. service member killed in action.
It marked Biden’s first time attending a dignified transfer since becoming president.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley also attended the dignified transfer, along with U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and U.S. Air Force Col. Chip Hollinger, who oversaw the military logistics of the transfer.
This story is developing. Please check back for updates.