WASHINGTON -- The United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan late Monday, roughly 24 hours early, ending America's longest war and closing a chapter in military history likely to be remembered for unfulfilled promises and a frantic final exit that cost the lives of 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, some barely older than the war.
After a war carried out by four presidents over two decades, Americans handed the country back to the same Taliban militants they drove from power in 2001.
Hours ahead of President Joe Biden's deadline today for shutting down the final airlift and thus ending the U.S. war, Air Force transport planes carried a remaining contingent of troops from the Kabul airport. Thousands of troops had spent a harrowing two weeks protecting the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape the country.
In the final hours of the evacuation, U.S. surveillance and attack aircraft locked down the skies over Kabul, circling high overhead until the last transport plane was aloft.
"Job well done," said Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, who was on the last plane out. "Proud of you all."
In announcing the completion of the evacuation and the war effort, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 p.m. Washington time, or one minute before midnight in Kabul. He said a number of American citizens, likely numbering in "the very low hundreds," were left behind and that he believes they will still be able to leave.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken put the number of Americans left behind at below 200, "likely closer to 100," and said the State Department would keep working to get them out. He praised the military-led evacuation as heroic and historic and said the U.S. diplomatic presence would shift to Doha, Qatar.
Biden said military commanders unanimously favored ending the airlift, not extending it. He said he asked Blinken to coordinate with international partners in holding the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave in the days ahead.
The evacuation also did not reach all those Afghans who had assisted the United States over the years, and who now face possible Taliban retribution. An unknown number of those who made it through the tortuous process for special visas granted to U.S. collaborators never even made it to the airport, much less onto an evacuation flight.
Blinken said the United States had "worked intensely" to evacuate Afghans who worked with the Americans and were at risk of reprisal.
"We've gotten many out but many are still there," he said. "We will keep working to help them. Our commitment to them has no deadline." He also said the Taliban had pledged to let anyone with proper documents "freely depart Afghanistan."
However, "A new chapter of America's engagement with Afghanistan has begun," Blinken said. "It's one in which we will lead with our diplomacy. The military mission is over."
Jubilant Taliban fighters and their supporters reveled in victory as the news became clear. Celebratory gunfire broke out across the city in the predawn hours today in Kabul, the arc of tracer rounds lighting up the night sky.
"The last American soldiers departed from Kabul airport, and our country has achieved a full independence, thanks to God," Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, said on Twitter.
THE FINAL HOURS
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. Its control was left in the hands of the Taliban.
At the airport, where scenes of mass desperation and carnage this past week became indelible images of the Americans' final days, only a few hundred Afghans still waited at the gates Monday night as the last flights departed.
The closing hours of the evacuation were marked by extraordinary drama. American troops faced the daunting task of getting final evacuees onto planes while also getting themselves and some of their equipment out, even as they monitored repeated threats -- and at least two actual attacks -- by the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate.
The final pullout fulfilled Biden's pledge to end what he called a "forever war" that began in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania. His decision, announced in April, reflected a national weariness of the Afghanistan conflict. Now he faces criticism at home and abroad, not so much for ending the war as for his handling of a final evacuation that unfolded in chaos and raised doubts about U.S. credibility.
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.
More than 1,100 troops from coalition countries and more than 100,000 Afghan troops and civilians died, according to Brown University's Costs of War project.
In Biden's view, the war could have ended 10 years ago with the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida extremist network planned and executed the 9/11 plot from an Afghanistan sanctuary. Al-Qaida has been vastly diminished, preventing it thus far from again attacking the United States.
Congressional committees, whose interest in the war waned over the years, are expected to hold public hearings on what went wrong in the final months of the U.S. withdrawal -- including why the administration did not begin the evacuation earlier.
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.
Biden now faces doubts about his plan to prevent al-Qaida from regenerating in Afghanistan and of suppressing threats posed by other extremist groups such as the Islamic State. The Taliban are enemies of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan but retain links to a diminished al-Qaida.
The final U.S. exit included the withdrawal of its diplomats, although the State Department has left open the possibility of resuming some level of diplomacy with the Taliban depending on how they conduct themselves in establishing a government and adhering to international pleas for the protection of human rights.
The speed with which the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15 caught the Biden administration by surprise. It forced the U.S. to empty its embassy and frantically accelerate an evacuation effort that featured an extraordinary airlift executed mainly by the U.S. Air Force, with American ground forces protecting the airfield. The airlift began in such chaos that a number of Afghans died on the airfield, including at least one who attempted to cling to a C-17 transport plane as it sped down the runway.
By the evacuation's conclusion, well more than 100,000 people, mostly Afghans, had been flown to safety. The dangers of carrying out such a mission came into tragic focus Thursday when the suicide bomber struck outside an airport gate.
Speaking shortly after that attack, Biden stuck to his view that ending the war was the right move. He said it was past time for the United States to focus on threats emanating from elsewhere in the world.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "it was time to end a 20-year war."
The war's start was an echo of a promise President George W. Bush made while standing atop the rubble in New York City three days after hijacked airliners slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
"The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" he declared through a bullhorn.
Less than a month later, Bush launched the war. The Taliban's forces were overwhelmed and Kabul fell in a matter of weeks. A U.S.-installed government led by Hamid Karzai took over and bin Laden and his al-Qaida cohort escaped across the border into Pakistan.
The initial plan was to extinguish bin Laden's al-Qaida, which had used Afghanistan as a staging base for its attack on the United States. The grander ambition was to fight a global war on terrorism based on the belief that military force could somehow defeat Islamic extremism.
Afghanistan was but the first round of that fight. Bush chose to make Iraq the next, invading in 2003 and getting mired in an even-deadlier conflict that made Afghanistan a secondary priority until Barack Obama assumed the White House in 2009 and later that year decided to escalate in Afghanistan.
Obama pushed U.S. troop levels to 100,000, but the war dragged on though bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011.
When Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, he wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan but was persuaded not only to stay but to add several thousand troops and escalate attacks on the Taliban. Two years later his administration was looking for a deal with the Taliban, and in February 2020 the two sides signed an agreement that called for a complete U.S. withdrawal by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban made a number of promises including a pledge not to attack U.S. troops.
Biden weighed advice from members of his national security team who argued for retaining the 2,500 troops who were in Afghanistan by the time he took office in January. But in mid-April he announced his decision to fully withdraw.
The Taliban pushed an offensive that by early August toppled key cities, including provincial capitals. The Afghan army largely collapsed, sometimes surrendering rather than taking a final stand, and shortly after President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital, the Taliban rolled into Kabul and assumed control Aug. 15.
Some parts of the country modernized during the U.S. war years, and life for many Afghans, especially women and girls, improved measurably. But Afghanistan remains a tragedy -- poor, unstable and with many of its people fearing a return to the brutality the country endured when the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001.
The U.S. failures were numerous. It degraded but never defeated the Taliban and ultimately failed to build an Afghan military that could hold off the insurgents, despite $83 billion in U.S. spending to train and equip the army.
The Taliban said they were still working on the shape of their new government.
They gave few signs Monday that they were ready to govern a country of nearly 40 million people facing a major humanitarian crisis, with about half the population malnourished, according to the United Nations.
The Taliban's leader, cleric and judge Haibatullah Akhundzada, remained out of sight, having issued no statement since the insurgents seized Kabul two weeks ago. One Kabul-based diplomat expressed doubt over whether he is even alive, although a Taliban spokesperson insisted Akhundzada was in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.
"They are a little bit stunned by running a big urban center like Kabul," a city of up to 5 million at its peak, the veteran diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. "They are really playing from a very weak hand."
The diplomat said that an unresolved rift between the group's moderates, like the political chief, Abdul Ghani Baradar, who led the negotiations with the United States, and hard-liners like the Haqqani brothers, the military leaders, was further weakening the former insurgents.
Conditions are bound to get much worse soon, both in Kabul and across the country, U.N. officials warned. Food stocks are likely to run out at the end of September, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan.
In Kabul, "we may be on the brink of an urban humanitarian catastrophe," the diplomat said. "Prices are up. There are no salaries. At some point millions of people will reach desperation."
"The Taliban are going out of their way to emphasize the amnesty message" for those who opposed them, the Kabul diplomat said. "But they may not have full command and control."
Many Afghans are worried.
"Because I worked with the Americans, I won't be able to put food on my table, and I won't be able to live in Afghanistan," said one special visa holder, Hamayoon, in an interview Monday from Kabul. "I risked my life for many years, working for the Americans, and now my life is at even greater risk."
"If I go back to my family house, the Taliban will chase me," he said. "Our neighbors already told them I worked with the Americans. I am in a miserable situation. The Americans betrayed us."
Mike, a former interpreter for the U.S. Special Forces who asked to be identified only by his nickname, said everyone in his village knows that he worked for the U.S. military.
"Of course we are disappointed that we're left behind," he said. "We have sacrificed a lot. We wake up in the middle of the night and think about what's going to happen to our life and to our children."
Students at the American University of Afghanistan, one of the largest American civilian projects in the country and the target of a deadly Taliban attack in 2016, were also left behind. Some 600 hundred students and relatives had boarded buses to the airport but in the end were not cleared to enter the airport gates.
Information for this article was contributed by Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor of The Associated Press; and by Adam Nossiter and Eric Schmitt of The New York Times.