The Final U.S. Military Plane Has Left Afghanistan As America's Longest War Ends
The last U.S. plane departed Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai International Airport a few hours before dawn, marking the end of America's longest war and leaving the country's future in disarray and uncertainty under Taliban rule.
President Biden praised the military for "their execution of the dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan as scheduled," in a statement released by the White House Monday evening.
He also noted ongoing diplomatic efforts to help Americans or Afghan partners who still need to leave Afghanistan, saying he will address the nation on Tuesday about the decision to withdraw by Aug. 31.
The final days of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan were filled with chaos, bloodshed, desperation, fear and panic as troops attempted to stave off attacks by ISIS-K, while trying to coordinate a massive exodus of people out of the country.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin celebrated the work done by U.S. troops and their allies in the final days in Afghanistan.
"Our service members secured, defended, and ran a major international airport. They learned how to help consular officers screen and verify visa applicants," Austin said. "They provided medical care, food and water, and compassion to people in need. They flew tens of thousands of people to safety, virtually around the clock. They even delivered babies."
Austin also mourned the loss of soldiers during the 20 year war in Afghanistan.
More than 2,400 U.S. troops lost their lives in Afghanistan, including the 13 who were killed in a suicide attack near the Kabul airport last week. And in the end, nearly 20 years of engagement was punctuated with the destruction of munitions and equipment by U.S. troops hours before they flew out of the battle-scarred country.
Tens of thousands of Afghans were also killed in the war, and those who survive now face an uncertain future under a repressive Taliban regime — the same regime that provided safe haven to Al Qaeda and that the U.S. set out to topple after 9/11.
A Taliban spokesperson congratulated his country "on the liberation and independence of Afghanistan from the American occupation."
A new diplomatic mission has begun
Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined America's engagement in Afghanistan going forward, calling it a new chapter "in which we will lead with our diplomacy."
Blinken said that with the embassy in Kabul now shuttered, the new embassy would be based in Qatar and it would provide consular and other services.
According to most recent counts, he said, "under 200 ... probably closer to 100" U.S. citizens who hope to leave remain in Afghanistan. It's unclear how many Afghan people who worked as allies to the U.S. are still trapped by the Taliban. However, Blinken did offer some comfort to them, saying, "Our commitment to them has no deadline."
A key component of that plan is holding the Taliban to its pledge to allow all those who want to leave safely and securely, Blinken said. That includes the reopening of Kabul's airport with significant assistance from Qatar and Turkey.
Blinken also underscored the tenuous relationship between the U.S. and the Taliban, repeating what many other officials have said about the Taliban's trustworthiness.
"Every step we take will be based not on what the Taliban government says, but what it does to uphold its commitments."
More than 123,000 civilians were flown out by the U.S. and its partners
Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said more than 123,000 civilians were flown out of the country in a coordinated effort by the U.S. and its allies, calling it "a monumental accomplishment."
Every single American service member is now out of the country, McKenzie told reporters Thursday, and no evacuees were left at the airport when the last flight took off.
McKenzie said in the final hours of America's military presence on the ground, the Taliban were "very pragmatic and very businesses-like." He said they established a "firm perimeter outside the airfield," and were helpful to U.S. forces in concluding military operations on the ground.
Despite the end of military presence, McKenzie echoed other administration officials who have emphasized in recent days that diplomatic efforts to get more Americans and American allies out of Afghanistan will continue. U.S. officials have said Taliban forces, who now control Afghanistan's borders and air space, have been told that anyone who wants to leave should be able to do so peacefully.
The Pentagon is investigating civilian deaths in last drone strike
The official ending of the U.S. war in Afghanistan comes as the Pentagon is still looking into the deaths of 10 Afghan civilians, including a number of children, who were killed during a drone strike over the weekend that targeted suspected ISIS-K militants.
Sunday's drone strike destroyed an Islamic State affiliate car bomb that posed an "imminent" threat to Kabul's airport, U.S. Central Command said.
However, The Washington Post reported Monday that 10 Afghan civilians, including several children, were also killed in the strike. The dead, all part of the same extended family, were reportedly getting out of a car near the targeted vehicle.
NPR has not independently confirmed the reports.
Central Command said in an earlier statement it was "aware of reports of civilian casualties," adding: "We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life."
Amnesty International USA's executive director, Paul O'Brien, said Washington has a responsibility to the families of those killed to "acknowledge its actions, investigate and provide reparations."
"Survivors awake today in Afghanistan with the unimaginable pain of having lost their loved ones with no accountability for those who have committed the airstrikes," O'Brien said in a statement emailed to NPR.
"For two decades the United States has carried out strikes with no accountability to the public for how many civilians were killed by U.S. actions in Afghanistan and other countries. It is unconscionable that the Biden administration continues airstrikes in this shroud of secrecy."
Meanwhile, rockets fired on Monday apparently aimed at Kabul's airport rained down on a nearby neighborhood as U.S. forces scrambled to evacuate thousands of Afghans trying to flee ahead of the withdraw of all American troops.
The attack, reportedly involving several rockets, occurred as U.S. C-17 cargo jets continued operations to evacuate people desperate to escape from an Afghanistan now controlled by the hard-line Taliban.
Taylor said five rockets were fired at the Kabul airport. He said three had missed altogether, one was shot down, and a fifth hit the airfield but caused no damage or injuries.
"We're in a particularly dangerous time right now," said Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, acknowledging there was still a threat to U.S. forces.
The Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group's Nasher News said on its Telegram channel, "By the grace of God Almighty, the soldiers of the Caliphate targeted Kabul International Airport with six Katyusha rockets."
Central Command spokesman Bill Urban said earlier that the rockets were intercepted by a U.S. defensive system known as a Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System, or C-RAM.
The drone strikes follow last week's suicide bombing at the gates of the airport that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. ISIS-K, an affiliate of the widely known extremist group, claimed that attack as well, inviting swift retaliation in the form of a U.S. drone strike that killed two "high-profile" members of the group and wounded a third, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. strikes against ISIS-K
Urban, the Central Command spokesman, described Sunday's drone strike as a "self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike."
"We are confident we successfully hit the target. Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material," he said.
The two drone strikes on Friday and Sunday came after Biden last week vowed to hunt down the perpetrators of Thursday's airport attack. A day before the second U.S. strike, Biden warned that another attack on the airport was imminent and that he had directed U.S. commanders to "take every possible measure to prioritize force protection."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the lead-up to Tuesday's troop withdrawal deadline was "the most dangerous time in an already extraordinarily dangerous mission these last couple of days."
Biden honors the fallen
On Sunday, the president attended a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in which the flag-draped caskets containing bodies of the U.S. service members killed in last week's attack in Kabul arrived aboard a C-17 plane.
Biden stood with grieving families as honor guards in dress uniforms removed the caskets. He and first lady Jill Biden also met privately with family members of the dead.
Eleven Marines, one Army soldier and one member of the Navy were among the dead. In a statement Saturday, the president called them "heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our highest American ideals and while saving the lives of others."
"The 13 service members that we lost were heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our highest American ideals and while saving the lives of others," Biden said in the statement. "Their bravery and selflessness has enabled more than 117,000 people at risk to reach safety thus far."
Evacuations continued to the very end
As airport evacuations continued Monday, the White House said that about 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul in the 24 hours ending at 3 a.m. ET Monday.
"This is the result of 26 US military flights (26 C-17s) which carried approximately 1,200 evacuees, and 2 coalition flights which carried 50 people," the statement said.
The statement said that since Aug. 14, the U.S. "has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation" of some 116,700 people. It said that since the end of July, the U.S. has relocated about 122,300 people.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration believes it will still have "substantial leverage" over the Taliban after U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan that will allow the U.S. and its allies to leave the country safely even after Tuesday's deadline.
Sullivan said there are about 300 American citizens who remain in the country. Many others hoping to evacuate are Afghans who helped the U.S. military and who qualified for special immigrant visas or other visas to come to the United States.
At Monday's Pentagon briefing, Kirby said it was not too late for any remaining Americans to get to the Kabul airport for evacuation flights.
"There is still time," he said.
U.N. warns of a humanitarian crisis
As the U.S. evacuations continue, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, is warning that "a larger crisis is just beginning" as foreign aid to Afghanistan is likely curtailed after a U.S. exit.
"The evacuation effort has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and these efforts are praiseworthy," Grandi said in a statement. "But when the airlift and the media frenzy are over, the overwhelming majority of Afghans, some 39 million, will remain inside Afghanistan. They need us – governments, humanitarians, ordinary citizens – to stay with them and stay the course."
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