NEW YORK -- The last day of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan served up harsh reminders about the complexity of the conflict, exposed the partisan divisions it has created, and confronted the region with a new reality: The Taliban are once again in control of Afghanistan, with more international leverage and support than they had two decades ago.
From Florida, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the 10th American commander to oversee the Afghanistan conflict from Central Command -- the U.S. military's formation tasked with securing much of the Middle East and Central Asia and considered one of the most challenging operational posts in the American military hierarchy -- spoke via video link to a press conference at the Pentagon.
In a remarkable briefing that ran about 25 minutes, the general lauded the efforts of the U.S. and allied service members who had helped carry out the biggest airlift in American military history -- only to also acknowledge the many U.S. civilians it left behind. He did not address reports of civilian deaths, including of children, that followed America's parting shot via drone strike Sunday in Kabul against what the Pentagon claimed was an ISIS-K target.
"We think the citizens that were not brought out number in the low -- very low hundreds," McKenzie said.
"The military phase is over, but our desire to bring these people out remains as intense as it was before," he said. "The weapons have just shifted, if you will, from the military realm to the diplomatic realm, and the Department of State will now take the lead on it."
It was a staggering admission of an unfinished task that would be picked apart by conservative commentators in social and mainstream media. Moreover, in what became the last military briefing on America's long occupation of Afghanistan, a disheveled McKenzie also said that the Taliban had been "very helpful and useful" in the final days of the withdrawal, even "very pragmatic and very businesslike."
Yet the general's casual cadence, accompanied by warnings like "the Taliban's going to have their hands full with ISIS-K," seemed to deflect most of the hardball questions the reporters pitched him -- except one that stopped him in his tracks:
"If I could just have you reflect personally, after 20 years of war you've served there, you've now watched the last troops leave, you've lost troops in recent days, how did it feel leaving Afghanistan to the very group that you overthrew 20 years ago, the Taliban?" Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin asked.
"As you know, I've been there a couple times. My son's been there a couple times," replied McKenzie, stammering and stumbling for the first time in the briefing. "So -- and it was very -- I was very conflicted, actually."
In Kabul, there was no such trepidation.
Just as McKenzie was wrapping up, videos and images from the evacuated capital started flooding social media -- first of celebratory gunfire, with tracer bullets lighting up the night. Then, around an hour after the clock struck midnight local time, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid declared the formal independence of Afghanistan, tweeting that the last of the "occupiers" had left.
Throughout the night and into the day came yet more images of the spoils of war. From Hamid Karzai International Airport, Taliban foot soldiers, decked out in surplus U.S. military kit and weapons, entering a hangar and boarding an American-supplied aircraft. From Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, entire regiments of U.S.-made armored military vehicles being taken over by the Taliban, even as a Blackhawk helicopter -- symbolic of American air power in the country -- was flown by the Islamist group over the city.
In Khost, another Taliban stronghold, a "mock funeral" of caskets bearing the U.S., U.K. and NATO flags was attended by hundreds of armed men, many bearing the Taliban flag.
As more such images emerged, shaping the American debate, the verdict on President Joe Biden's decision to pull out grew increasingly partisan. Even an address by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, laying out a step-by-step plan to evacuate Americans and allies left behind -- "a new chapter of America's engagement with Afghanistan has begun," he promised -- could not stem the rising wave of criticism. Minutes later, Blinken was blasted for vacationing in the Hamptons while Kabul was falling.
From Rep. Liz Cheney, who tweeted that "Biden's decision to withdraw has handed Afghanistan over to the Taliban & created a terrorist sanctuary," to America's most-watched cable news anchor, Tucker Carlson -- "These are children!" he declared of how the Biden administration had conducted the withdrawal -- the shrillness turned to anger.
And then came the "watch" moment.
A video showing Biden checking his wristwatch after Sunday's the ceremony to receive the flag-draped coffins of service members killed last week in a suicide bombing emerged -- and played out repeatedly on conservative media, calling out Biden for his callousness.
"Joe Biden is deeply, deeply out of touch," declared Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for former President George W. Bush, on Fox News.
"Dishonor" screamed a one-word headline on the cover of the New York Post, showing the president looking at his watch.
Across the Atlantic, The Times of London published a cartoon, showing Biden seated at his desk in the Oval Office: "When do we declare a major disaster?" he asks an aide, who replies: "Usually immediately after you've made a decision."
As conservatives rallied around the cause of an unfinished evacuation, an empowered Taliban in Kabul and a new enemy in ISIS-K, it was also widely debated exactly how many Americans had been left behind. The word from official sources was 100 to 200, while conservative commentators like Sean Hannity claimed "thousands." Meanwhile, the left tried to stake its own claim:
"Ending wars is good actually," declared Rep. Ilhan Omar in a widely circulated tweet, the congresswoman from Minnesota, part of the elite "Squad" comprising members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, standing firm by the president's side to end the war.
"It's shamefully easy for presidents to start wars and much, much harder to end them," wrote anchor Mehdi Hasan, who hosts his own show on the website of left-leaning MSNBC. "Biden's decision to withdraw now is ... perhaps the boldest foreign policy move by a president in my lifetime."
Back in Kabul, however, the Taliban seemed increasingly comfortable.
Even with the threat of ISIS-K looming, Taliban senior leader Anas Haqqani, who spent years in an Afghan prison and is still on America's terror watchlist, was unassuming and relaxed when asked by an Al-Jazeera reporter about how the Taliban would deal with the new threat.
"We fought with the world empty-handed and we came this far," he said. "We can get rid of such a group, like we have in the past. This is not something to be stressed about."