U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has kept his campaign promise to put an end to America’s longest war with the final military withdrawal from Afghanistan on Monday.
The last U.S. military planes left Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, at 3:29 p.m., East Coast time, one minute before midnight in Kabul, Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command told Pentagon reporters on Monday.
“I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third country nationals and vulnerable Afghans,” McKenzie said via teleconference from his headquarters in Tampa. “The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30, this afternoon, at 3:29 p.m., East Coast time, and the last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan.”
President Biden thanked the troops for the final evacuations that last 17 days and took the lives of 13 U.S. service members and close to 200 Afghan civilians during an ISIS-K suicide attack on August 26.
“I want to thank our commanders and the men and women serving under them for their execution of the dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan as scheduled – in the early morning hours of August 31st, Kabul time – with no further loss of American lives,” President Biden wrote in a statement. “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. They have done it with unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve. Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended.”
President Biden also announced that he will be addressing the nation on Tuesday afternoon on his decision not to extend the U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond August 31.
“For now, I will report that 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. 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,” he wrote.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also announced the completion of the U.S. military evacuation of civilians and the removal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, saying he was “deeply saddened” by the killing of 13 U.S. service members on August 26 by an ISIS-K terror attack.
“I am deeply saddened that, in the course of this historic evacuation mission, we lost 13 of our own, along with so many others who were killed and wounded days ago by cruel terrorists,” he said. “We mourn alongside the families of those who were lost, and we will never forget your loved ones’ heroism and sacrifice. They gave their lives trying to save the lives of others. And I know that you share my pride in them. I hope that all Americans also share my pride in all the troops and diplomats who raced to help save lives during those critical days of August.”
According to Austin, U.S. service members secured, defended, and ran a major international airport.
“They learned how to help consular officers screen and verify visa applicants. They provided medical care, food and water, and compassion to people in need. They flew tens of thousands of people to safety, virtually around the clock. They even delivered babies,” he said. “No other military in the world could accomplish what we and our allies and partners did in such a short span of time. 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.”
Austin added, “Over the course of more than four decades in service, I have never ceased to be amazed at what an American service member can do. I remain in awe. And I am thankful for the skill and professionalism with which they do it.
“I want to thank all those who labored so hard and under such difficult circumstances over the past few weeks, including dozens of our diplomats, to move some 6,000 of our fellow citizens out of harm’s way and evacuate more than 123,000 people from Afghanistan—the vast majority of whom are Afghans, friends and allies who fought by our side and fought for our shared values.”
The last C-17 departed with Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the commander of troops in Kabul, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson aboard. It was fitting the State and Defense leaders left together, McKenzie said.
That C-17s played such a part in the evacuation is only fitting. On Oct. 7, 2001, Pentagon leaders announced that C-17 aircraft were dropping humanitarian rations to starving Afghans, even as American military might went after al-Qaida and the Taliban leaders that were sheltering Osama bin Laden and his murderous cult.
The C-17 departure on Monday was both the end of the military portion of the evacuation and “also the end of the nearly 20 year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001,” McKenzie said. “It is a mission that brought Osama bin Laden to an end, along with many of his al-Qaida co-conspirators, and it was not a cheap mission.”
More than 800,000 American service members and 25,000 civilians served in Afghanistan over the almost 20-year mission.
A total of 2,461 U.S. service members and civilians were killed and more than 20,000 were injured. “Sadly, that includes 13 U.S. service members who were killed last week by an (Islamic State of Khorasan) suicide bomber. We honor their sacrifice today. As we remember their heroic accomplishments. 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,” he added.
While the military evacuation is complete, the diplomatic mission to ensure additional U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans who want to leave, continues.
Pentagon said the evacuation in Afghanistan was the largest non-combatant evacuation operation ever conducted by the U.S. military.
President Joe Biden ordered the start of the NEO operation on Aug. 14. Since then, U.S. military aircraft have evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport, which includes 6,000 Americans and more than 73,500 third country nationals and Afghan civilians.
“In total, U.S. and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians, which were all enabled by U.S. military service members who were securing and operating the airfield,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie praised the more than 5,000 service members who enabled the operation. He said the number of people evacuated represented a monumental accomplishment, enabled by the “determination, the grit, the flexibility and the professionalism of the men and women of the U.S. military and our coalition partners who were able to rapidly combine efforts and evacuate so many under such difficult conditions.”
Coalition contributions were invaluable and McKenzie cited the contributions of Norway, which kept a hospital open during the evacuation that was instrumental in caring for some of the wounded from the ISIS strike.
The situation on the ground over the past month has been complicated. Assumptions and plans changed daily, the general said. One plan was to work with a functioning ally in the Afghan government and security forces. Another was based on the premise that the outer provinces would fall to the Taliban, but that Kabul would stand. Finally, it became apparent that the government was collapsing and the security forces giving up.
Each time the planners in U.S. Central Command rolled with the punches. They positioned forces in the region to act instantly and pre-positioned aircraft. They worked with interagency officials and with international partners.
McKenzie himself had to meet with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, to tell them that if the group interfered with the U.S. non-combatant evacuation operation, there would be severe consequences. He said they were “businesslike and pragmatic” and did not interfere with U.S. operations on the airfield. This included military operations to bring Americans to be evacuated.
And they accomplished the mission. “The last 18 days have been challenging,” McKenzie said. “Americans can be proud of men and women of the armed forces who met these challenges head on.”