Last plane carrying Americans from Afghanistan departs as longest U.S. war concludes

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. has completed efforts to evacuate its remaining civilians and troops from Afghanistan, effectively ending the longest war in U.S. history, the Defense Department said Monday.

“I’m here to announce the completion of our mission in Afghanistan,” Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters in a virtual briefing. The last C-17 took off at 3:29 pm ET, and "every single U.S. service member is now out of Afghanistan," McKenzie said.

The departure of the last U.S. plane capped a bloody and chaotic end to the conflict. In the war's final weeks, fighting and terrorism in the scramble to evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghans left 13 service members and hundreds of civilians dead. The U.S. is not expected to have any diplomatic or military presence in the country after this point, officials said.

President Joe Biden has faced some of his harshest criticism from both Republicans and Democrats since the Taliban took control of the country Aug. 15. But he has stood behind his decision to pull all U.S. troops out by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying it was no longer in America's interest to keep troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

Biden was meeting with advisers in the Oval Office when an aide passed a note alerting national security adviser Jake Sullivan that the last military plane had safely left Kabul, and Sullivan relayed the news to Biden, a White House official said.

As the U.S. handed the country over to the group that it began fighting 20 years ago, Biden has no second thoughts, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

"The president stands by his decision to bring our men and women home from Afghanistan," Psaki said.

In a statement Monday evening, Biden thanked the service members who aided in the evacuation and said he would make further remarks Tuesday.

"The past 17 days have seen our troops execute the largest airlift in US history, evacuating over 120,000 US citizens, citizens of our allies, and Afghan allies of the United States," Biden said. "They have done it with unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve. Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended."

A C-17 military transport plane takes off into the sunset as Taliban forces are stationed outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek / The New York Times via Redux)
A C-17 military transport plane takes off into the sunset as Taliban forces are stationed outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek / The New York Times via Redux)

Biden defended his decision to end the evacuation operation, saying it was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of all of the commanders on the ground.

"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 in the statement.

McKenzie said more than 6,000 Americans were evacuated, representing the "vast majority of those who wanted to leave at this time." He said the number of remaining Americans is in the "very low hundreds."

In an address Monday night, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the number of Americans still in the country who want to leave is "under 200, and likely closer to 100." "We're trying to determine exactly how many," he said, and will continue to work to get them out of Afghanistan. "Our commitment to them has no deadline," Blinken said.

McKenzie also said the administration remains committed to getting all Americans and eligible Afghans who want to leave out of the country beyond the deadline of Tuesday, shifting from a military to a diplomatic operation led by the State Department.

"There's a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out," said McKenzie, who served in Afghanistan with his son. "But I think if we'd stayed another 10 days, really, we wouldn't have gotten everybody out that we wanted to get out, and there still would have been people who would have been disappointed. It's a tough situation."

A White House official said Monday that since the Taliban took control of Kabul, the U.S. has evacuated and facilitated the evacuations of about 116,700 people. Since the end of last month, the U.S. has relocated about 122,300 people, the official said.

Image: US forces board a plane in Kabul (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: US forces board a plane in Kabul (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images)

The evacuation continued "uninterrupted" Monday, the White House said, despite a barrage of rockets that had been fired toward Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport. About 1,500 Afghans were evacuated over the previous 24 hours, and every service member is now out of the country, McKenzie said.

A State Department memo obtained by NBC News on Sunday said the agency had begun evacuating remaining diplomatic workers on two planes carrying U.S. government employees and had secured all locally employed U.S. Embassy staff members, processing the last three buses and evacuating 2,800 employees and family members.

About 250 Americans who remained in Afghanistan on Sunday were seeking to leave, said a State Department spokesperson, who said the assistance was being coordinated "around the clock for this group." The official said those Americans might already be at the airport in Kabul or "in the process of being guided there, and all have information on how to reach us."

The State Department was also in touch Sunday with about 280 additional people who identified themselves as Americans but were either undecided about leaving Afghanistan or said that they did not intend to leave.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a statement Monday mourned the 13 service members killed last week, saying they gave their lives trying to save others and that he was proud of the work of troops and diplomats to save lives "during those critical days of August."

"No other military in the world could accomplish what we and our allies and partners did in such a short span of time," Austin said. "That is a testament not only to our forces’ capabilities and courage but also to our relationships and the capabilities of our allies and partners."

Blinken said the departure of U.S. forces means "a new chapter of America's engagement with Afghanistan has begun." He said the State Department "suspended our diplomatic presence in Kabul, and transferred our operations to Doha, Qatar."

"Going forward, any engagement with the Taliban-led government in Kabul will be driven by one thing only — our vital national interests," Blinken said.

Nearly 2,500 service members and 3,800 U.S. contractors were killed over the nearly 20-year war.