WASHINGTON: America has ended its longest war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced, hours after the final US evacuation plane flew out of Kabul airport amidst celebratory gunfire from the Taliban, leaving the war-ravaged country in disarray and its future uncertain under the rule of hardline Islamist militants.
The last plane carrying US forces left Afghanistan on Monday around midnight, a day ahead of schedule, ending a 20-year war that left nearly 2,500 American troops dead and spanned four presidencies.
The C17 aircraft's departure from Kabul's international airport was the final chapter in a contentious military effort, which eventually saw the US handing Afghanistan back to the very Islamist militants it sought to root out when American troops entered the country in 2001.
Celebratory gunfire and fireworks erupted across Kabul as Taliban fighters took control of the airport following the withdrawal, proclaiming “full independence” for Afghanistan.
“Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended,” Biden said on Monday, thanking the armed forces for their execution of the dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan with no further loss of American lives. “For now, I will report that it was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and of all of our commanders 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,” Biden said, defending his decision to stick with the August 31 deadline despite mounting criticism from political opponents, and even from some allies.
The head of US Central Command General Kenneth ‘Frank’ McKenzie announced the end of the mission to Afghanistan during a news conference on Monday at the Pentagon, informing reporters the last US aircraft took off in Kabul just before midnight local time, ahead of President Biden's deadline for completing the withdrawal.
“It's a mission that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, along with many of his al-Qaida co-conspirators,” McKenzie said, noting the cost to the US was high. “Two thousand four hundred sixty-one US service members and civilians killed, and more than 20,000 who were injured,” he said. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” he said about the 18-day effort described as the largest airlift in US military history.
In the end, McKenzie said, the US evacuated over 79,000 civilians through the Kabul airport, which includes 6,000 Americans and about 73,000 Afghans and third-country nationals. Following the US pullout, Taliban fighters were seen exploring Kabul airport and taking over its facilities, including a hangar with aircraft apparently left behind by the American military.
“The Taliban has made commitments on safe passage and the world will hold them to their commitments. It will include ongoing diplomacy in Afghanistan and coordination with partners in the region to reopen the airport allowing for continued departure for those who want to leave and delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan,” Biden said.