U.S. completes withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending 20-year deployment
U.S. and coalition aircraft evacuated more than 123,000 civilians from area in last 18 days
The United States on Monday completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending its longest war and closing a chapter in military history likely to be remembered for colossal failures, unfulfilled promises and a frantic final exit that cost the lives of more than 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, some barely older than the war itself.
Hours ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's Tuesday deadline for ending the U.S. war, air force transport planes carried a remaining contingent of troops from Kabul airport. Thousands of troops had spent a harrowing two weeks protecting a hurried and risky airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape a country once again ruled by Taliban militants.
Taliban fighters then watched as the last U.S. cargo planes departed just before midnight, firing their guns into the air, celebrating victory after a 20-year insurgency in Afghanistan that drove the world's most powerful military out of one of the poorest countries.
In announcing the completion of the evacuation and 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. ET, or one minute before midnight in Kabul.
Shortly after, the Taliban proclaimed "full independence" for Afghanistan. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said early Tuesday that "American soldiers left the Kabul airport, and our nation got its full independence."
Evacuation marked by threats, attacks
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 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.
Earlier Monday, Islamic State militants fired a volley of rockets at Kabul's rapidly emptying international airport without hurting anyone.
All day, U.S. military cargo jets came and went despite the rocket attack. The Taliban released a video shot from the airport's grounds, saying the Americans had removed or destroyed most of their equipment and that troop numbers were far lower. "It looks like today will be the last day," one of the unidentified fighters said.
With the departure of the last of its troops, the U.S. ends its 20-year war in Afghanistan with the Taliban back in power. Many Afghans remain fearful of them or further instability, and there have been sporadic reports of killings and other abuses in areas under Taliban control despite their pledges to restore peace and security.
Biden said he would address the American people about the withdrawal Tuesday.
In a statement Monday evening, he said he ended the mission as planned on the recommendation of the military's Joint Chiefs and commanders on the ground, saying it 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."
In the last 24 hours, the American military evacuated about 1,200 people from the area on 26 C-17 flights, while two coalition flights flew out 50 others, the White House said.
Biden said he has asked U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to lead a continued coordination with international partners "to ensure safe passage for any Americans, Afghan partners, and foreign nationals who want to leave Afghanistan."
Taliban tightens security
The two-week airlift brought scenes of desperation and horror. In the early days, people desperate to flee Taliban rule flooded onto the tarmac and some fell to their deaths after clinging to a departing aircraft.
On Thursday, an Islamic State suicide attack at an airport gate killed more than 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. More died in various incidents during the airport evacuation.
The extremist group is far more radical than the Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan earlier this month after capturing most of the country in a matter of days.
The two groups have fought each other in the past, and the Taliban have pledged to not harbour terrorist groups.
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The Taliban tightened their security cordon around the airfield after the attack, clearing away massive crowds of Afghans who were desperate to flee the country in the waning days of the U.S.-led airlift. Taliban fighters are now stationed along a fence near the main runway.
In the capital's Chahr-e-Shaheed neighbourhood, a crowd quickly gathered around the remains of a four-door sedan used by the attackers. The car had what appeared to be six homemade rocket tubes mounted in place of back seats. The Islamic State and other militant groups routinely mount such tubes in vehicles in order to move them undetected.
"I was inside the house with my children and other family members. Suddenly there were some blasts," said Jaiuddin Khan, who lives nearby. "We jumped into the house compound and lay on the ground."
Some of the rockets landed across town in Kabul's Salim Karwan neighbourhood, striking residential apartment blocks, witnesses said. That neighbourhood is some three kilometres from the airport. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Five rockets targeted the airport, said navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesperson for the U.S. military's Central Command.
A defensive weapon known by the acronym C-RAM — a Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System — targeted the rockets in a whirling hail of ammunition, he said. The system has a distinct drill-like sound that echoed through the city at the time of the attack.
The IS statement, carried by the group's Amaq media outlet, claimed the militants fired six rockets.
In Washington, the White House issued a statement saying officials briefed U.S. President Joe Biden on "the rocket attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport" (HKIA) in Kabul, apparently referring to the vehicle-based rocket launch.
"The president was informed that operations continue uninterrupted at HKIA, and has reconfirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize doing whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground," the statement said.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki later told reporters that Biden does not regret his decision to go ahead with the U.S. troop withdrawal.
"The president stands by his decision to bring our men and women home from Afghanistan," she said. "Because if he had not, his view — and the view of many experts in military out there — is we would have sent tens of thousands potentially, or thousands at least, more troops back into harm's way, risking more lives or more people to fight a war the Afghans were not willing to fight themselves."
Renewed risk of terrorism
Asked whether Americans are now less safe with the Taliban in power, Psaki said the U.S. will not allow terror to grow in the region.
"We are not going to do anything that's going to allow terrorists to grow or prosper in Afghanistan — or any terrorist organization."
But a former staffer from the George W. Bush administration says there is an absolute risk that this will mark a turning point
"This may be the kickoff to a new age of Islamic terrorism," said Peter Rough, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, in an interview with CBC News. "This could be a metastasizing moment, a big victory for Islamic terrorists. They have now Afghanistan, a country, after having lost the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. So there is danger here to be sure."
Taliban says normal travel will resume
The airport had been one of the few ways out for foreigners and Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover. However, coalition nations have halted their evacuations in recent days, leaving the U.S. military largely alone at the base with some remaining allied Afghan forces.
The U.S. State Department released a statement Sunday signed by around 100 countries, as well as NATO and the European Union, saying they had received "assurances" from the Taliban that people with travel documents would still be able to leave.
The Taliban have said they will allow normal travel after the U.S. withdrawal is completed on Tuesday and they assume control of the airport. However, it remains unclear how the militants will run the airport and which commercial carriers will begin flying in, given the ongoing security concerns.