The last American soldier boarded the last American military plane to leave Kabul just before midnight Monday, marking the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan a staggering two decades after American boots first hit the ground there. The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., announced the official culmination of America’s longest war shortly after the final American C-17 cargo plane left Afghan airspace. “I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan,” McKenzie said at a news conference. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, tweeted: “The last American occupier withdrew from [Kabul airport] at 12 o’clock and our country gained its full independence, praise and gratitude be to God.”
The U.S. said it evacuated some 120,000 Americans and Afghan allies over the past few weeks as the self-imposed Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline approached. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there are now fewer than 200 American citizens believed to remain in Afghanistan. It’s not clear under what circumstances those Americans remain in the country. Despite the historic airlift, tens of thousands Afghans that worked with the U.S. and its allies over the years have been unable to flee. “There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie said. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.” The security situation around the Kabul airport had deteriorated over the past two weeks, including a pair of attacks that killed dozens, making it dangerous to get to the airport.
Twenty years after the U.S. strutted into Afghanistan, a nation wounded and emboldened by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, it was a somber, rather than triumphant, end to the Afghan conflict that had seen a steady decline in the U.S. military presence. The conflict had continued on, however, largely outside the day-to-day consciousness of the American public. When the American people reengaged over the past month with what was happening in the country they had largely stopped thinking about, the situation on the ground appeared shockingly grim. The chaotic final weeks of the withdrawal have sparked criticism for the Biden administration for its handling of a military situation that had become easier to do nothing about, than it was to end.
The gnarly final weeks of the U.S. withdrawal did not come from nowhere however; they were the manifestation of decades of interrelated American failures and misguided assumptions about the world and the country’s ability to shape it. The cost of the war was officially $2 trillion and more than 170,000 lives, solemn sums that were swept aside in a matter of weeks by Taliban advances. Now, after all that, once again Afghanistan faces an uncertain future on its own. The U.S. diplomatic mission is being moved to more secure Doha, Qatar in the wake of the near-instantaneous Taliban takeover of the country and the general fear and anxiety about what comes next there. “A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun,” Secretary of State Blinken said Monday evening. “It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy. The military mission is over.”