WASHINGTON/NEW YORK -- The U.S. has completed the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, officially bringing to a close its nearly 20-year military operation that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
President Joe Biden thanked U.S. soldiers for carrying out the dangerous evacuation from Afghanistan, saying that "the past 17 days have seen our troops execute the largest airlift in U.S. history," as they evacuated over 120,000 civilians. "Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended," he said in a statement. He will address the nation on Tuesday.
The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 30. "Every single U.S. service member is now out of Afghanistan; I can say that with 100% certainty," Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters Monday afternoon. The final flight took off just as the day was turning to Tuesday, Aug. 31, in Afghanistan -- the deadline set by Biden.
On the last flight out of the capital, Kabul, were top U.S. envoy Ross Wilson and Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division and the head of the ground force there. They "were in fact the last people to stand on the ground and step on the airplane," McKenzie said.
Biden explained in the statement that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. commanders on the ground recommended ending the 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," he said.
The president said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will lead the continued coordination with international partners "to ensure safe passage for any Americans, Afghan partners, and foreign nationals who want to leave Afghanistan." The U.S. Embassy in Kabul remains closed and the U.S. will continue negotiations with the Taliban in Doha.
The final weeks of America's presence in Afghanistan were mired in chaos as the Taliban took over city after city and U.S. and coalition forces rushed to evacuate Americans and at-risk Afghans from Kabul.
Altogether, more than 123,000 civilians, including over 6,000 Americans, were flown out of the country, McKenzie said, adding that at the time of the last flight's departure, no evacuees were left at the airport.
Earlier in the day, the Pentagon made clear that the U.S. military will not be part of any evacuation efforts that continue from here.
"For Americans and other individuals that want to be able to leave Afghanistan after our withdrawal is complete, the State Department is going to continue to work across many different levers to facilitate that transportation," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday. "Right now, we do not anticipate a military role in that effort."
According to Blinken, there are 100 to 200 Americans who want to leave, along with numerous Afghan partners.
But as tensions rise in Kabul -- illustrated by last week's suicide bombing at the airport -- major obstacles to continuing the evacuations safely have emerged.
These include keeping the airport itself running.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that Washington will work with other countries to "put in place the means" to maintain a functioning airport. Turkey and Qatar have been mentioned as possible partners.
Blinken alluded to the possibility of the facility closing temporarily at some point after U.S. forces leave. Turkey has said it will not help run the airport without Turkish troops present for security, according to Reuters. The Taliban lack the technical expertise to operate the airport, but they object to foreign military forces remaining in the country.
Exit arrangements were one of the major topics on the agenda when ministers of the Group of Seven members, Turkey, Qatar, the European Union and NATO met virtually Monday.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab emphasized "the importance of working with like-minded partners on safe passage and exit arrangements for eligible Afghans remaining in the country," the U.K. said in a readout.
A statement released Sunday by more than 90 nations and international organizations stated that "we have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country."
Raab noted the assurances but said, "We must judge them on their actions, and whether people are allowed safe passage to leave."
There have been frequent reports since mid-August of Afghans being blocked by checkpoints between central Kabul and the airport set up by the Taliban.
Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, is skeptical of the Taliban.
"They've never acted as a security force or as a government force. They've always been an insurgency force," he said. "I don't think the U.S. would be or should be placing a lot of faith on the Taliban's capacity" to detect terrorist activity.
Holding off further terrorist attacks will be a challenge as well. U.S. forces conducted a drone strike Sunday on a vehicle containing explosives near the Kabul airport, believed to be part of another planned attack by Islamic State Khorasan, the group's Afghan affiliate also known as ISIS-K, which claimed responsibility for last week's bombing.
Separately, five rockets were fired at Kabul airport Sunday evening, none of which caused any damage to U.S. troops. The Pentagon said C-RAM -- or counter rocket, artillery, and mortar -- thwarted one rocket but one landed inside the airport, causing no effect. Three landed off the airfield, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters.
The Biden administration has indicated that in the future it will focus on international terrorist groups planning attacks on U.S. soil or against American allies. It has been less clear on how to respond to plots within Afghanistan.
The plan to remove the roughly 2,500 U.S. troops that had remained in the country was announced by Biden in April.
Washington temporarily boosted its military presence to 5,800 troops to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies after the Taliban seized control of Kabul in mid-August, stoking fears of a return to a reign of terror under the Islamic militant group. European countries and Japan have evacuated citizens as well.
Biden stuck with the withdrawal plan amid mounting criticism of the two-decade quagmire.
The "war on terror" had the backing of most Americans when it began in 2001, but support cooled in light of the lives and capital sunk into the conflict with seemingly little benefit to the U.S. public. Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, aimed to pull out by the end of 2016 but was forced to shelve such plans as the Afghan situation deteriorated.
While Biden has repeatedly asserted that the U.S. military was not in Afghanistan for "nation-building," the withdrawal runs counter to a foreign policy focused on democracy and human rights. The Taliban's return to power ends the country's fledgling democracy and risks undoing progress on women's rights and press freedom achieved during the war.
Keeping tabs on international terrorist groups likely will prove more difficult as well.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a congressional hearing in June that al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations could regroup and pose a threat to the U.S. homeland within two years. The Pentagon worries that the Taliban's comeback could accelerate that time frame.
The Islamic State Khorasan, an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport during the evacuation. The U.S. and Europe face the risk of emboldened terrorist groups conducting attacks on their soil.
The war in Afghanistan was launched after the shocking Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. Afghanistan's Taliban government at the time refused to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 2001 attacks, spurring then-President George W. Bush to declare a "war on terror."
NATO supported Washington in the conflict, invoking the treaty's collective defense provision for the first time in its history.