WASHINGTON (Dispatches) — The United States has completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war and closing a chapter in military history likely to be remembered for colossal failures, unfulfilled promises and a frantic final exit that cost the lives of more than 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, some barely older than the war.
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 as tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others sought to escape a country once again ruled by Taliban militants.
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 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 still in Afghanistan at under 200, “likely closer to 100,” and said the State Department would keep working to get them out. He said the U.S. diplomatic presence would shift to Doha, Qatar.
The airport had become a U.S.-controlled island, a last stand in a 20-year war that claimed more than 2,400 American lives.
The closing hours of the evacuation were marked by extraordinary drama. A suicide bombing claimed by Daesh on Aug. 26 killed 13 American service members and some 169 Afghans. Witnesses said many died as panicked U.S. troops opened fire at the crowd. More died in various incidents during the airport evacuation, including 10 members of a single family in a U.S. drone strike allegedly targeting Daesh members.
The final pullout fulfilled Biden’s pledge to end what he called a “forever war” that purportedly began in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 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.
The U.S. war at times seemed to grind on with no endgame in mind, little hope for victory and minimal care by Congress for the way tens of billions of dollars were spent for two decades. The human cost piled up — tens of thousands of Americans injured in addition to the dead.
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.
In Biden’s view the war could have ended 10 years ago with the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden.
Congressional committees, whose interest in the war waned over the years, are expected to hold public hearings on what went wrong in the final months of the U.S. withdrawal. Why, for example, did the administration not begin earlier the evacuation of American citizens?
It was not supposed to end this way. The administration’s plan, after declaring its intention to withdraw all combat troops, was to keep the U.S. Embassy in Kabul open, protected by a force of about 650 U.S. troops, including a contingent that would secure the airport along with partner countries. Washington planned to give the now-defunct Afghan government billions more to prop up its army.
The speed with which the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15 caught the Biden administration by surprise. It forced the U.S. to empty its embassy and frantically accelerate an evacuation effort that featured an extraordinary airlift executed mainly by the U.S. Air Force, with American ground forces protecting the airfield. The airlift began in such chaos that a number of Afghans died on the airfield, including at least one who attempted to cling to the airframe of a C-17 transport plane as it sped down the runway.
Now Afghanistan remains a tragedy, poor, unstable and with many of its people fearing a return to the brutality the country endured when the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001.