WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — After two decades, the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war and closing a sad chapter in military history. It’s likely to be remembered for colossal failures, unfulfilled promises and a frantic final exit that cost the lives of 13 U.S. service members and more than 180 Afghans.
Hours before President Joe Biden’s Tuesday deadline for shutting down a final airlift, and thus ending the U.S. war, Air Force transport planes carried a remaining contingent of troops from Kabul airport late Monday. Thousands of troops had spent a harrowing two weeks protecting the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape a country once again ruled by Taliban militants.
Biden is defending his handling of the withdrawal, including the frantic final evacuation from Kabul airport.
In remarks at the White House on Tuesday, Biden said the U.S. government had reached out 19 times since March — prior to his public announcement that he was going to end the U.S. war — to encourage all American citizens in Afghanistan to leave. He acknowledged that 100 to 200 were unable to get out when the airlift ended Monday.
Biden asserted that his administration was ready when the U.S.-backed government in Kabul collapsed in mid-August and the Taliban took over. But the airlift that began Aug. 14 has been heavily criticized by many as initially unorganized and chaotic.
Biden said that 5,500 Americans eventually got out, and that “arrangements” will be made to get the remaining Americans out if they so choose.
In announcing the completion of the evacuation and war effort. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 p.m. Washington time, or one minute before midnight in Kabul. He said some American citizens, likely numbering in “the very low hundreds,” were left behind, and that he believes they will still be able to leave the country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken put the number of Americans left behind at under 200, “likely closer to 100,” and said the State Department would keep working to get them out. He praised the military-led evacuation as heroic and said the U.S. diplomatic presence would shift to Doha, Qatar.
Biden said in a written statement Monday that he asked Blinken to coordinate with international partners in holding the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave in the days ahead.
The closing hours of the evacuation were marked by extraordinary drama. American troops faced the daunting task of getting final evacuees onto planes while also getting themselves and some of their equipment out, even as they monitored repeated threats — and at least two actual attacks — by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate. A suicide bombing on Aug. 26 killed 13 American service members and some 169 Afghans. More died in various incidents during the airport evacuation.
The Taliban triumphantly marched into the airport Tuesday, just hours after the final troops withdrew. Standing on the tarmac, Taliban leaders pledged to secure the country, quickly reopen the airport and grant amnesty to former opponents.
“After 20 years we have defeated the Americans,” said Mohammad Islam, a Taliban guard at the airport from Logar province, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle Tuesday. “They have left and now our country is free.”
“It’s clear what we want. We want Shariah (Islamic law), peace and stability,” he added.
The final pullout fulfilled Biden’s pledge to end what he called a “forever war” that began in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania. His decision, announced in April, reflected a national weariness of the Afghanistan conflict. Now he faces criticism at home and abroad, not so much for ending the war as for his handling of a final evacuation that unfolded in chaos and raised doubts about U.S. credibility.
More than 1,100 troops from coalition countries and more than 100,000 Afghan forces and civilians died, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.