WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — America’s longest war and chaotic withdrawal came to an end Monday as the last plane carrying troops and evacuees exited Afghanistan’s air space.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken says fewer than 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan who want to leave and the U.S. will continue to try to get them out.
Blinken says the number of Americans left may be closer to 100. He says the U.S. would work with Afghanistan’s neighbors to secure their departure either overland or by charter flight once the Kabul airport re-opens.
Speaking shortly after the Pentagon announced the completion of the U.S. military pullout Monday, Blinken said the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will remain shuttered and vacant for the foreseeable future.
He says American diplomats who had worked from the now-closed embassy will be based in Doha, Qatar.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command said the last C-17 plane left with evacuees at 3:29 p.m. ET, one minute before midnight in Kabul. The last manned aircraft exited Afghanistan’s airspace shortly after McKenzie’s remarks began.
McKenzie stated that in total 123,000 civilians were evacuated over 18 days with about an average of 7,500 leaving a day.
The airport had become a U.S.-controlled island, a last stand in a 20-year war that claimed more than 2,400 American lives.
The U.S.’s full withdrawal comes as anti-missile defenses intercepted rockets fired at Kabul’s airport on Monday as the United States flew its core diplomats out of Afghanistan in the final hours of its chaotic withdrawal.
It was not supposed to end this way. The administration’s plan, after declaring its intention to withdraw all combat troops, was to keep the U.S. Embassy in Kabul open, protected by a force of about 650 U.S. troops, including a contingent that would secure the airport along with partner countries. Washington planned to give the now-defunct Afghan government billions more to prop up its army.
Two U.S. officials said the “core” diplomatic staff had withdrawn by Monday morning. They did not say whether this included top envoy Ross Wilson, expected to be among the last to leave before the final troops themselves.
A U.S. official said initial reports did not indicate any U.S. casualties from as many as five missiles fired on the airport. Islamic State – enemies of both the West and the Taliban – claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.
The rockets followed a massive Islamic State suicide bombing outside the teeming airport gates on Thursday, which killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.
In recent days Washington has warned of more attacks, while carrying out two air strikes. It said both hit Islamic State targets, including one on Sunday it said thwarted an attempted suicide bombing by blowing up a car packed with explosives in Kabul, but which Afghans said had struck civilians.
Tuesday’s deadline for troops to leave was set by President Joe Biden, fulfilling an agreement reached with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump to end Washington’s longest war.
But having failed to anticipate that the Taliban would so quickly conquer the country, Washington and its NATO allies were forced into a hasty evacuation. They will leave behind thousands of Afghans who helped Western countries and might have qualified for evacuation but did not make it out in time.
The Taliban, who carried out public executions and banned girls and women from school or work when last in power 20 years ago, have said they will safeguard rights and not pursue vendettas. They say once the Americans leave, the country will at last be at peace for the first time in more than 40 years.
But countless Afghans, especially in the cities, fear for their futures. And the United Nations said the entire country now faces a dire humanitarian crisis, cut off from foreign aid amid a drought, mass displacement and COVID-19.
“The evacuation effort has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and these efforts are praiseworthy,” said UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi.
“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.”
A Pakistani plane flew 12.5 tons of World Health Organization medical emergency and trauma kits on Monday to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the WHO’s first supplies to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.
Afghanistan’s healthcare system is at risk of collapse, two aid agencies told Reuters, after foreign donors including the World Bank and European Union stopped providing aid following the Taliban’s victory.
Outside the airport in Kabul, people described themselves as forsaken by the departing foreign troops.
“We are in danger,” said one woman. “They must show us a way to be saved. We must leave Afghanistan or they must provide a safe place for us.”
Afghan media said Monday’s rocket attack was launched from the back of a vehicle. The Pajhwok news agency said several rockets struck different parts of the Afghan capital.
“People are terrified and worried about the future, worried that the rocket launching might continue,” said Farogh Danish, a Kabul resident near the wreckage of the car from which the rockets were launched.
On Sunday, Pentagon officials said a U.S. drone strike killed an Islamic State suicide car bomber preparing to attack the airport. The Taliban condemned the strike and said seven people died. The New York Times quoted family members as saying it killed 10 people, including seven children, an aid worker for an American charity and a contractor with the U.S. military.
U.S. Central Command said it was investigating reports that civilians were killed.
“We know there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties,” it said.
Two U.S. officials told Reuters evacuations would continue on Monday, prioritizing people deemed at extreme risk. Other countries have also put in last-minute requests to bring out people in that category, the officials said.
Britain urged other countries to work together to provide safe passage out for eligible Afghans still in the country.
The Taliban will take full control of Kabul airport after the U.S. withdrawal on Tuesday, Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network cited an unidentified Taliban source as saying.
PRESIDENT MOURNS DEAD
Biden attended a ceremony on Sunday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to honor members of the U.S. military killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing, the deadliest incident for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in more than a decade.
As the flag-draped transfer caskets carrying the remains emerged from a military plane, the president, who has vowed to avenge the Islamic State attack, shut his eyes and tilted his head back.
Five of the fallen service members were just 20, as old as the war itself.
The departure of the last troops will end the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan that began in late 2001, after the al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
U.S.-backed forces ousted a Taliban government that had provided safe haven for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and have engaged in a counter-insurgency war against the Islamist militants for the past two decades.
The U.S. war effort at times seemed to grind on with no endgame in mind, little hope for victory and minimal care by Congress for the way tens of billions of dollars were spent for two decades. The human cost piled up — tens of thousands of Americans injured in addition to the dead, and untold numbers suffering psychological wounds they live with or have not yet recognized they will live with.
More than 1,100 troops from coalition countries and more than 100,000 Afghan forces and civilians died, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.
NewsNation spoke with retired Lt. Gen. Richard Newton after troops exited Afghanistan. See the interview in the player below.