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With last plane out of Kabul, America's 20-year war in Afghanistan is over

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WASHINGTON – The final U.S. troops in Afghanistan flew out of Kabul Monday at 3:29 p.m. EDT, ending a costly 20-year occupation that started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and leaving a war-torn country now controlled by the Taliban.

The retreat, announced by the Pentagon, came one minute before Aug. 31 Kabul time, keeping the U.S. in the country right up until a deadline set by President Joe Biden's administration.

“Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended," Biden said in a statement, calling it the "unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and of all of our commanders on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned."

In their view, the president said, ending the U.S. presence was the "best way" to protect the lives of troops and secure Afghan civilian departures in the weeks and months ahead.

More: The US is out of Afghanistan. What happens next in the nation now led by the Taliban?

The pullout capped a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops that was upended after the Taliban quickly took over the Afghan government this month. It turned deadly when a terrorist attack killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 169 Afghan civilians on Thursday as the U.S. scrambled to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies in the final days.

Afghan observers said the U.S. exit was an abrupt, full-circle moment that left the Taliban declaring victory over the world's leading super power.

"After 20 years of presence, the last day of U.S. presence in Afghanistan was unceremonious," said Torek Farhadi, who served as an adviser to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "Everyone wants to forget."

Planes are seen on the tarmac at the airport in Kabul late on August 30, 2021, hours ahead of a U.S. deadline to complete its frenzied withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Planes are seen on the tarmac at the airport in Kabul late on August 30, 2021, hours ahead of a U.S. deadline to complete its frenzied withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Between 100 and 200 Americans who want to leave remain in Afghanistan

Biden plans to address the nation about the completed withdrawal Tuesday afternoon.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen hailed the withdrawal in a tweet: "Our country gained full independence. Praise be to Allah. Heart-felt congratulations to all countrymen!"

While Maj. Gen. Kenneth Mckenzie Jr. said the "voluntary evacuation is complete," he said the "diplomatic mission" will continue to ensure that remaining U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans can leave if they choose. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will oversee these diplomatic efforts.

"We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out," McKenzie said. "But I think if we stayed another 10 days, we wouldn't have gotten everybody out that we wanted."

More: 'Several hundred' Americans are unsure whether to leave Afghanistan, US officials say

More than 123,000 people have been flown out of Afghanistan since Aug. 14, including about 6,000 Americans, said Blinken, who called diplomacy the "next chapter" in U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. He said “under 200 and likely closer to 100” Americans who want to leave Afghanistan remain there. The U.S. is trying to determine exactly how many.

Biden vowed that all Americans who wanted to leave the country would be able to – even beyond the military withdrawal – but the White House said some might not choose to leave. Blinken said part of the challenge in pinpointing a precise number is that some remaining Americans are longtime residents of Afghanistan with American passports unsure about leaving. Others have deep roots and families in Afghanistan and face a "painful choice," he said.

“Our commitment to them, and to all Americans in Afghanistan, and everywhere in the world continues,” Blinken said. “We will help them leave.”

The U.S. toll for the war is more than 2,400 troops killed, including the 13 who died last week as they helped Afghans and Americans flee the oppressive rule of the Taliban. The two-decade failed attempt at building a stable, secure democracy in the country cost $2 trillion by some estimates. The war continued 10 more years after the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the head of Al Qaeda and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

The terrorist network ISIS-K, an Islamic State offshoot and sworn enemy of the Taliban, maintains a presence in Afghanistan, although the Biden administration has said it does not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland.

More: White House says a 'fair amount' of US military equipment provided to Afghans is now in Taliban hands

McKenzie, who leads U.S. Central Command and oversaw the war effort there in its final months, estimated there are 2,000 "hardcore ISIS fighters in Afghanistan now," many of whom were released from prisons by the Taliban but who will now pose a threat to the Taliban's rule.

He said no American citizens were on the last jets to leave, although "we continued the outreach and would have been prepared to bring them on until the very last minute."

"No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who serve, nor the emotions they're feeling at this moment, but I will say that I'm proud that both my son and I have been a part of it."

Who, and what, was left behind

It's not clear who or how many people were on the final flight out. The Pentagon has kept a tight lid on the ever-dwindling number of American service members in Afghanistan out of concerns for their safety, along with U.S. diplomats who remained in the country.

McKenzie said "the situation" wouldn't allow the U.S. to evacuate everyone who wanted to leave. On Monday, the airport in Kabul was again subject to attack, this time by rockets. One was shot down, one struck inside the fence inside but did no damage and three others missed the airport, Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor, director of regional operations for the Joint Staff.

The final flights for the American retreat would have had room for a few civilians, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Some equipment used to protect the retreat would have had to be abandoned.

Aircraft, including Apache attack helicopters, would likely have to be destroyed by an airstrike, according to a defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Radios and other sensitive equipment would be burned up by incendiary hand grenades that can cut through steel.

More: For Biden, fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal abroad complicates agenda at home

The collapse of the U.S.-supported Afghan government on Aug. 14 stunned the Pentagon and White House. The administration had planned to guard the U.S. Embassy and airport with about 600 troops. But the Taliban’s onslaught, which toppled provincial governments over the summer with relatively few shots fired by Afghan security forces, left Kabul surrounded.

An US Air Force aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul on August 30, 2021. Rockets were fired at Kabul's airport on August 30 where US troops were racing to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan and evacuate allies under the threat of Islamic State group attacks.
An US Air Force aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul on August 30, 2021. Rockets were fired at Kabul's airport on August 30 where US troops were racing to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan and evacuate allies under the threat of Islamic State group attacks.

President Ashraf Ghani fled, and the Taliban, nearly 20 years after their ouster, regained control of the country. U.S. military officials were forced to negotiate with their bitter enemy for safe passage during the retreat.

Biden has faced widespread criticism over his handling of the withdrawal as the images of chaos at the Kabul airport undercut his pledge to restore competence in the White House. Republicans on Monday argued that the reemergence of a Taliban-led government and threat of ISIS-K have left America unsafe.

"Just because we decided to quit fighting doesn't mean the terrorists go away," Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mcconnell, R-Ky. said.

"You don’t end wars by surrendering," Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said on Twitter. "You don’t secure America by leaving Americans behind enemy lines, betraying our allies, and empowering our enemies. This isn’t ending a war. It’s losing one."

President Joe Biden in the White House on Aug. 26, 2021.
President Joe Biden in the White House on Aug. 26, 2021.

Blinken said the Taliban has committed to preventing terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that can threaten the United States or our allies.

That doesn’t mean the U.S. will rely only on the Taliban, he said.

“We’ll remain vigilant in monitoring threats ourselves and will maintain robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region to neutralize those threats if necessary,” he added, “as we demonstrated in the past few days by striking ISIS facilitators and imminent threats in Afghanistan.”

What happens now

Now that the withdrawal is complete, refugee groups, experts and advocates are bracing for a refugee crisis and economic calamity.

"Worst-case scenario is we will have a massive humanitarian disaster," starting with the summary execution of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or on behalf of its ideals, said Brett Bruen, a former foreign service officer who worked on global engagement in the Obama administration.

Women and girls will likely be trying to flee the country in droves, despite the Taliban's pledges to rule with a more moderate hand. When the militant Islamic group last ruled the country, its leaders barred girls from attending school and prohibited women from working outside the home. Appearing in public without a male relative was illegal.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1994, most women were forced to quit their jobs and many lost access to education and health care.
When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1994, most women were forced to quit their jobs and many lost access to education and health care.

Tanya Henderson, founder and executive director of Mina's List, which is dedicated to women's equal representation in government around the world and has been helping the Afghanistan evacuation, said many Afghans had been racing the clock to flee ahead of the withdrawal deadline.

"However, many are also making preparations in case they do not make it out before U.S. forces leave," Henderson said. "This includes exploring land routes and other options, which are often dangerous and uncertain."

Mina's List and other groups say they intend to keep working to help vulnerable Afghans escape even after the American withdrawal, although it will be increasingly difficult and dangerous.

Amed Khan, a human rights activist and philanthropist who was in Kabul trying to evacuate as many at-risk Afghans as possible over the last several weeks, said the level of desperation in the country is “off the charts,” and he doesn’t know how it could get any worse.

“If we were to make a list of the 2,000 most important Afghans who risked their lives working with the U.S. over the last 20 years, the majority of them are still in Afghanistan," he said.

"Nobody should take their foot off the gas or feel comfortable thinking we’ve evacuated everyone” at risk of being persecuted by the Taliban. "I'm ready to go right back,” Khan said.

He does not expect the Taliban to be restrained once American troops are gone.

“Nothing good is going to happen on Wednesday,” said Khan, who is based in New York and left Kabul recently on an evacuation flight he helped to arrange. “They have hung people over the last two weeks. Logic would dictate they would continue to hang people.”

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: America's longest war comes to an end in Afghanistan

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