U.S. Withdraws Final Troops From Afghanistan, Pentagon Says

Topline

The U.S. military pulled its final troops from Kabul’s airport Monday afternoon, the Department of Defense said, ending its 20-year-long war in Afghanistan after a Taliban takeover of the country, a chaotic U.S.-led evacuation process and a deadly suicide bombing.

Key Facts

The military’s final C-17 transport plane departed Hamid Karzai International Airport — a final outpost of U.S. control in Taliban-run Kabul — at 3:29 p.m. Eastern on Monday, U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Frank McKenzie said in a press conference.

McKenzie added “the last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan,” and all U.S. service members have left the country.

The departure comes hours before an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline set by President Joe Biden, and days after a bombing at the Kabul airport’s gates killed 13 U.S. service members.

In a statement, Biden praised military personnel and diplomats who led an effort to evacuate Americans and Afghans “at tremendous risk with such unparalleled results,” and said he didn’t extend his withdrawal deadline because senior military leadership felt leaving on time would limit any further risk to U.S. troops.

Tangent

The United States left some vehicles and other equipment in Afghanistan amid its withdrawal, McKenzie said, but this equipment was “demilitarized” and made unusable. As the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan in recent weeks, the group captured aircraft and vehicles owned by the former Afghan military, much of which was funded by the United States.

Big Number

123,000. That’s how many civilians were evacuated via Kabul’s airport since Aug. 14, one day before the Taliban seized Kabul and deposed the country’s U.S.-backed government, McKenzie said. Over 79,000 of those evacuees — including U.S. citizens, at-risk Afghans and nationals of other countries — flew out of the country on U.S. military aircraft. More than 6,000 U.S. citizens were evacuated, which McKenzie called “the vast majority” of Americans who wanted to leave the country.

What We Don’t Know

It’s not clear how many American citizens and visa applicants — including Afghans who assisted the U.S. military and fear retribution from the Taliban — still remain in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has promised to keep rescuing Americans and Afghans after the military’s evacuation ends, a process that could require diplomacy and cooperation from the Taliban.

Crucial Quote

“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” McKenzie said. “But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out that we wanted to get out, and there still would’ve been people who would’ve been disappointed.”

Key Background

Monday’s departure signaled the end of the longest war in U.S. history, a conflict that began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. The Taliban — which controlled most of Afghanistan at the time — refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, prompting the United States, allied countries and local fighters to push the hardline fundamentalist group from power. But the Taliban regrouped and kept carrying out insurgent attacks, and the U.S. military began a two-decade process of countering the Taliban and assisting the new Afghan government, leading to more than 2,000 U.S. troop deaths and over $2 trillion in estimated costs. Amid bipartisan weariness over the war, former President Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban last year to pull all U.S. personnel from the country by May 2021, and Biden extended this deadline by several months but still pushed to leave Afghanistan. As the United States began pulling troops this year, the Taliban rapidly took over territory and the U.S.-backed government crumbled more quickly than expected, and the Taliban entered Kabul by mid-August, cementing the group’s return to power in Afghanistan after a 20-year-long effort by the United States to defeat it. The U.S. military spent its final weeks in Afghanistan occupying Kabul’s airport and flying out evacuees, a mission interrupted last week by an Islamic State-linked suicide bombing that killed more than 100 civilians and 13 U.S. personnel, likely the war’s final American troop deaths.

What To Watch For

The Biden administration says it will maintain an ability to conduct airstrikes against terrorist groups in Afghanistan, likely flying from a U.S. military base in the Persian Gulf. The United States has carried out at least two attacks from the air in recent days. A drone strike killed two operatives of Islamic State-Khorasan (a local Islamic State affiliate also known as IS-K or ISIS-K) in eastern Afghanistan on Friday, the Pentagon said, and a Sunday airstrike in Kabul targeted IS-K and reportedly led to several civilian casualties.

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