No more US boots on ground in Afghanistan
The last US military plane took off from the Kabul airport at 11.59pm local time on Monday, said General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command.
The United States has concluded its military mission in Afghanistan, ending its longest war and bringing down the curtain on a 20-year-old sketchy campaign that ended with a frantic last-minute rush of evacuations and a suicide bombing that killed 13 Americans and 170 Afghans.
The last US military plane took off from the Kabul airport at 11.59pm local time on Monday, said General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command. On the last C-17 out was the chief US diplomat in Afghanistan Ross Wilson.
The US has now left Afghanistan completely, barring an estimated 200 Americans still trying to leave, and scores of Afghans who worked for it and want to leave, fearing reprisal from the Taliban. The American embassy in Kabul was shut down a few days ago and its diplomats were operating from the Kabul airport before the exit. The mission will now conduct diplomatic operations with the Taliban government and consular operations out of Doha, Qatar.
“Our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement as he thanked military personnel for completing the “execution of the dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan as scheduled”.
Hours before Biden’s Tuesday deadline for shutting down a final airlift, air force transport planes carried a remaining contingent of troops from Kabul airport late on Monday. Thousands of troops spent two weeks protecting the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape a country once again ruled by the Taliban.
An image from the Pentagon taken with night-vision optics showed the last US soldier to step aboard the final evacuation flight out of Kabul – Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken put 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.
The closing hours of the evacuation were marked by extraordinary drama. American troops faced the daunting task of getting final evacuees onto planes while getting themselves and some of their equipment out.
McKenzie said 73 aircraft were “demilitarised”, or rendered useless, before American troops wrapped up the evacuation.
He said the Pentagon, which built up a force of nearly 6,000 troops to occupy and operate Kabul’s airport when the airlift began on August 14, left behind around 70 MRAP armoured tactical vehicles – which can cost up to $1 million a piece – that it disabled before leaving, and 27 Humvees.
Before the last US troops left, they disabled scores of aircraft and armoured vehicles – as well as a high-tech rocket defence system – at the airport, a US general said. Cockpit windows were shattered, instrument panels smashed, and aircraft tyres shot.
The US left behind but disabled the C-RAM system – counter rocket, artillery, and mortar – that was used to protect the airport from rocket attacks.
The system helped fend off a five-rocket barrage from the jihadist Islamic State group on Monday.
The US President said, in defence of his decision to end the mission on schedule, that it was “the unanimous recommendation” of the military leadership on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned.
“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.”
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid celebrated the completion of the US pull-out. “The last American occupier withdrew from (Kabul Airport) at 12 o’clock, and our country gained its full independence,” he wrote in a tweet. “Praise and gratitude be to God.”
Hours after the final foreign forces flew out of Afghanistan, a group of Taliban leaders walked victorious through the airport, flanked by their elite “Badri 313” guards, to inspect what had been left behind. Mujahid – tipped to be minister of information when a new government is named – led a group of officials onto the runway.
The special forces unit posed for pictures, brandishing US M-16 rifles and flying the Taliban’s white flag.
Blinken said: “The military mission is over, a new diplomatic mission has begun.” He went on to unveil a seven-point plan for the relationship with Afghanistan that was predicated chiefly on the Taliban government’s ability to deliver on an entire range of assurance they have given the Americans privately and publicly such as not allowing Afghanistan to be used by terrorists to attack the US or its allies, respecting rights of girls and women to study and work, and allowing every Afghan who has the paperwork to leave the country if they so want.
The final pull-out fulfilled Biden’s pledge to end what he called a “forever war” that began in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania.
(With inputs from agencies)