The United States has ended its military presence in Afghanistan after 20 years, General Frank McKenzie of the Central Command (CENTCOM), announced Monday at a press conference from the Pentagon.
I am here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the mission to evacuate US citizens, third-country nationals and vulnerable Afghans, McKenzie said.
The last US military plane, a C-17, took off from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul Monday at 3:29 pm local time, carrying US Ambassador, Ross Wilson, onboard.
“The last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan,” McKenzie said via a video link from CENTCOM headquarters in Florida.
“No words from me could capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who served, nor the emotions they're feeling at this moment,” McKenzie said, adding that even the final departure was bittersweet.
“We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” he told reporters, of the 18-day effort described as the largest airlift in U.S. military history.
”Now the latest drone is clearing (air) space over Afghanistan, McKenzie added. The General also explained that while the military withdrawal had been completed, the diplomatic mission was continuing to ensure that more US citizens and that eligible Afghans who want to leave could do so.
Tonight's withdrawal means the end of the military component of the evacuation, but also the end of the mission that began almost 20 years ago in Afghanistan, shortly after September 11, 2001, he said.
McKenzie also recalled that it was a mission that put an end to Osama bin Laden, along with his al Qaeda collaborators.
But it has not been a cheap mission; the cost has been 2,461 American soldiers and civilians killed and more than 20,000 wounded, the General stressed.
Since August 14, a day before the Taliban took Kabul, more than 79,000 civilians have been evacuated on US military flights. Together with the international coalition flights, the figure rises to more than 123,000 evacuated civilians. These numbers do not include more than some 5,800 soldiers deployed in recent weeks to secure the airport during evacuations and who have already been flown out of the country.
McKenzie insisted that the US always” will reserve the right to attack targets of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group if necessary.
In the end, the U.S. evacuated more than 79,000 civilians through the airport in Kabul, which includes 6,000 Americans and about 73,000 Afghans and third-country nationals. In all, officials said, the U.S. and its coalition partners helped more than 123,000 civilians flee Afghanistan, though countless more were left behind.
The White House said the President planned to address the nation Tuesday about the end of America’s longest war. In a statement released late Monday, President Joseph Biden defended his decision to stick with the August 31 deadline despite mounting criticism from political opponents, and even from some allies.
“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,” Biden said. “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.”
“The Taliban has made commitments on safe passage and the world will hold them to their commitments,” he added.
According to CENTCOM, the last American civilians to leave Afghanistan boarded flights from Kabul about 12 hours before the last flights took off, although officials held out hope more might be able to make it until the very last moment.
“We continued the outreach and would have been prepared to bring them out until the very last minute but none of them made it to the airport,” said McKenzie, who added that while the military evacuation is over, there will still be opportunities for the fewer than 200 Americans in Afghanistan to leave.
“The military phase of this operation is ended. The diplomatic sequel to that will now begin,” he said, calling the desire to evacuate more U.S. citizens and Afghan allies “as intense as it was before.” Ambassador Wilson is gone but the US State Department has consular services that would be provided to those who wanted to leave Afghanistan after August 31.
“As of today, we suspended our diplomatic presence in Kabul and transferred our operations to Doha, Qatar, which will soon be formally notified to Congress,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said late Monday. Blinken also left open the possibility that the embassy could eventually reopen in Kabul, depending on how the Taliban conduct themselves as well as the overall security situation.