The last American evacuation flights left Kabul’s international airport Monday, ending the longest US war weeks shy of its 20th anniversary — but with hundreds of American citizens and thousands more Afghan allies left behind.
Gen. Frank McKenzie Jr., the head of US Central Command, told reporters that the last US C-17 departed Hamid Karzai International Airport at 3:29 p.m. ET (11:59 p.m. Kabul time).
“The last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan,” McKenzie said.
In a statement, President Biden – who initially set a deadline of Sept. 11 for all American forces to withdraw from Afghanistan, then moved it up to Aug. 31 – praised US service members for their “unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve.” The White House said Biden would address the nation at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, on why he did not extend the deadline despite the hundreds of US citizens still stranded.
“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 the 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.”
The president also insisted that the Taliban had “made commitments on safe passage and the world will hold them to their commitments. It will include ongoing diplomacy in Afghanistan and coordination with partners in the region to reopen the airport allowing for continued departure for those who want to leave and delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.”
The Associated Press reported that celebratory gunfire erupted across Afghanistan’s capital city early Tuesday as the Taliban marked the departure of US forces.
“The last five aircraft have left, it’s over!” said one fighter, Hemad Sherzad. “I cannot express my happiness in words. … Our 20 years of sacrifice worked.”
“American soldiers left the Kabul airport, and our nation got its full independence,” declared Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
In total, McKenzie said, more than 79,000 civilians had been flown out of the Kabul airport on US military aircraft since Aug. 14 – including 6,000 Americans and 73,500 Afghans and third-country citizens. The number of evacuated civilians grew to more than 123,000 when accounting for those flown out by members of the US-led coalition.
“We did not get out everybody we had wanted to get out,” McKenzie acknowledged, while saying that diplomatic measures would now need to be employed to get out the estimated “low hundreds” of Americans left on the ground.
The commander emphasized that while “every single US service member” is now out of the country, “not all Americans wanted to leave.”
“There are Americans for a variety of reasons who want to stay for a while,” McKenzie said, adding that efforts to rescue Americans from Taliban-controlled territory ended “about 12 hours” before the last flight departed.
In an interview Sunday with ABC News’ “This Week,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that there were “about 300 American citizens left who have indicated to us that they want to leave.
“We are very actively working to help them get to the airport, get on a plane and get out of Afghanistan,” Blinken said at the time.
On the same day, a State Department spokesman estimated to NBC News that the number of Americans wishing to leave the country was about 250, with another 280 who identified as American but said they were undecided about leaving or did not intend to do so.
Monday’s announcement capped a chaotic withdrawal process further marred by an ISIS suicide bomb attack that killed at least 182 people — including 13 US service members — Thursday.
Since the Taliban marched into Kabul on Aug. 15, Karzai Airport had been overwhelmed by desperate Americans, Afghans and citizens of Allied nations hoping to score precious seats on flights out. The airport had been ringed by several Taliban checkpoints, manned by fighters who reportedly assaulted and beat anyone who tried to pass.
Despite those reports, the Biden administration defended collaboration with the Islamic fundamentalist group the US had driven from power in 2001, describing it as a necessary evil.
On Monday, McKenzie described an Aug. 15 meeting with Taliban leadership in Qatar as Kabul fell, in which, he said: “I delivered a message on behalf of the president, that our mission in Kabul was now the evacuation of Americans and our partners that we would not tolerate interference, and that we would forcefully defend our forces and the evacuees if necessary.”
“They promised not to interfere with our withdrawal,” added McKenzie, who described the Taliban as “significantly helpful” in the pullout.
The chaos was rife for exploitation by terrorists and on Aug. 26, that’s exactly what happened. A member of the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-K, blew himself up outside the airport’s Abbey Gate — where US Marines were searching would-be passengers for weapons and checking their travel documents.
The bomber’s victims included 11 Marines, a Navy corpsman and an Army soldier. They were the first combat fatalities in Afghanistan since February 2020. The attack was the deadliest day for American troops since 31 died in August 2011 when a Chinook helicopter was shot down by Taliban forces.
While US forces largely remained behind the airport’s walls, McKenzie said American troops conducted three helicopter rescues that brought in at least 185 US citizens, as well as 21 German nationals.
The commander also credited US special ops forces with getting at least 1,064 American citizens, 2,017 Afghan allies and 127 third-country nationals on flights out of Afghanistan through “phone calls, vectors and escorting.”
Earlier Monday, ISIS militants had fired a volley of rockets at the rapidly emptying airport without hurting anyone. All day, US military cargo jets came and went despite the rocket attack.
“I do believe the Taliban is going to have their hands full with ISIS-K,” McKenzie predicted. “And they let a lot of those people out of prisons. And now they’re going to be able to reap what they sowed.”
Whatever difficulty the Taliban may have with ISIS-K, their armory has received an unexpected boost in recent weeks after they seized billions of dollars in US-made, American taxpayer-bought weapons and equipment from fleeing Afghan security forces.
With Post wires