US completes troop withdrawal from Afghanistan
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK — The U.S. has completed the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, officially bringing to a close its nearly 20-year military operation that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
“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. Frank McKenzie, the head of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters Monday afternoon.
“The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 30, this afternoon, at 3:29 p.m. East Coast time, and the last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan,” McKenzie said, around an hour later.
“Every single U.S. service member is now out of Afghanistan; I can say that with 100% certainty,” he said. The final flight took off just as the day was turning to Tuesday, Aug. 31, in Afghanistan — the deadline set by U.S. President Joe Biden.
On the last flight out of the capital, Kabul, were top U.S. envoy Ross Wilson and Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division and the head of the ground force there. They “were in fact the last people to stand on the ground and step on the airplane,” McKenzie said.
A U.S. Marine checks a woman as she goes through the Evacuation Control Center during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 28. © Reuters
Biden said in a statement 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.”
“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,” he said.
The president said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will lead the continued coordination with international partners “to ensure safe passage for any Americans, Afghan partners, and foreign nationals who want to leave Afghanistan.”
Biden will address the nation on Tuesday.
The final weeks of America’s presence in Afghanistan were mired in chaos as the Taliban took over city after city and U.S. and coalition forces rushed to evacuate Americans and at-risk Afghans from Kabul.
Altogether, more than 123,000 civilians, including over 6,000 Americans, were flown out of the country McKenzie said, adding that at the time of the last flight’s departure, no evacuees were left at the airport.
Earlier in the day, the Pentagon made clear that the U.S. military will not be part of any evacuation efforts that continue from here.
“For Americans and other individuals that want to be able to leave Afghanistan after our withdrawal is complete, the State Department is going to continue to work across many different levers to facilitate that transportation,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday. “Right now, we do not anticipate a military role in that effort.”
The State Department says there are about 250 Americans who want to leave, along with numerous Afghan partners.
But as tensions rise in Kabul — illustrated by last week’s suicide bombing at the airport — major obstacles to continuing the evacuations safely have emerged.
These include keeping the airport itself running.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that Washington will work with other countries to “put in place the means” to maintain a functioning airport. Turkey and Qatar have been mentioned as possible partners.
Blinken alluded to the possibility of the facility closing temporarily at some point after U.S. forces leave. Turkey has said it will not help run the airport without Turkish troops present for security, according to Reuters. The Taliban lack the technical expertise to operate the airport, but they object to foreign military forces remaining in the country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts a virtual ministerial meeting with key partners on Afghanistan, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., Turkey, Qatar, the European Union, and NATO, at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 30. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department)
Exit arrangements were one of the major topics on the agenda when ministers of the Group of Seven members, Turkey, Qatar, the European Union and NATO met virtually Monday.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab emphasized “the importance of working with like-minded partners on safe passage and exit arrangements for eligible Afghans remaining in the country,” the U.K. said in a readout.
A statement released Sunday by more than 90 nations and international organizations stated that “we have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country.”
Raab noted the assurances but said, “We must judge them on their actions, and whether people are allowed safe passage to leave.”
There have been frequent reports since mid-August of Afghans being blocked by checkpoints between central Kabul and the airport set up by the Taliban.
Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, is skeptical of the Taliban.
“They’ve never acted as a security force or as a government force. They’ve always been an insurgency force,” he said. “I don’t think the U.S. would be or should be placing a lot of faith on the Taliban’s capacity” to detect terrorist activity.
Holding off further terrorist attacks will be a challenge as well. U.S. forces conducted a drone strike Sunday on a vehicle containing explosives near the Kabul airport, believed to be part of another planned attack by Islamic State Khorasan, the group’s Afghan affiliate also known as ISIS-K, which claimed responsibility for last week’s bombing.
Separately, five rockets were fired at Kabul airport Sunday evening, none of which caused any damage to U.S. troops. The Pentagon said C-RAM — or counter rocket, artillery, and mortar — thwarted one rocket but one landed inside the airport, causing no effect. Three landed off the airfield, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters.
The Biden administration has indicated that in the future it will focus on international terrorist groups planning attacks on U.S. soil or against American allies. It has been less clear on how to respond to plots within Afghanistan.
“Our combat mission, the war we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan, that’s going to end. And it’s going to end very soon here,” Kirby said. “But what’s not going to end is our commitment, especially here at the Defense Department, to protect the American people from threats, and particularly from any terrorist threat that could emanate from Afghanistan.”
“You can see in just the last 24, 36 hours that we do have an effective over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability employed now twice. And that capability will remain,” he said. “Obviously we’re not going to detail what it looks like on any given day against any particular threat, but we’re going to maintain that capability.”
Asked where those over-the-horizon capabilities will be based, Kirby said the U.S. is in discussions with neighboring countries about possibly hosting them.