The last United States troops left Afghanistan on Monday, August 30, completing America’s withdrawal from the country and bringing a formal end to their 20-year occupation – the longest war in U.S. history.
As the final evacuation flights lifted off from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai international airport at 11:59 p.m. local time, they left behind tens of thousands of Afghans and hundreds of Americans still seeking an escape from Taliban rule. Chattering gunfire punctuated the moment, as Taliban fighters unloaded volleys into the air to celebrate the last foreign soldiers finally departing a country that was now, officially, theirs.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, made the withdrawal announcement at a Pentagon news briefing 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,” he said. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we stayed another 10 days, we would not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. And there still would have been people disappointed. It’s a tough situation.”
“Tonight’s withdrawal signifies both the end of the military component of the evacuation, but also the end of the near 20-year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001,” McKenzie added.
Shortly after the last U.S. troops left Kabul on Monday night, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid took to Twitter to celebrate, announcing that “American soldiers left the Kabul airport, and our nation got its full independence. Praise be to Allah.”
He urged the residents of the Afghan capital to not be alarmed by the cacophony of gunfire, which he described as the sound of joy.
Videos also showed Taliban fighters – wearing what appears to be American tactical gear and brandishing what appear to be American weapons – entering a hangar at Hamid Karzai and examining Chinook helicopters that the military left behind.
The departure of the final U.S. C-17 aircraft signified an end to the chaotic and at times disastrous evacuation mission out of Kabul – what McKenzie described as the “largest non-combatant evacuation” in U.S. military history – following the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of the Afghan capital on August 15. Thousands clamoured to Hamid Karzai airport over the past two weeks in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to escape the insurgent regime.
Some clung to departing aircraft and fell to their deaths; others were crushed by swarming crowds at the airport gates. On Thursday, a suicide bomb attack killed as many as 180 people. All while Western forces scrambled to get as many of their own troops, allies and civilians out of Afghanistan as possible.
In a statement released by the White House on Monday night, President Joe Biden commended the military personnel involved in the American evacuation effort, thanking them for executing the “dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan as scheduled,” in line with the August 31 deadline that he set in July.
“The past 17 days have seen our troops execute the largest airlift in U.S. 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,” Biden wrote. “Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended.”
Not without violence and bloodshed, though. An escalating series of events over the past few days meant that the U.S. ultimately ended up leaving Afghanistan in much the same fashion as they came: with drone strikes. Following the suicide bombing attack on Friday – which was claimed by Islamic State group ISIS-K – the U.S. military deployed an aerial drone to carry out a targeted bombing in a residential area of Kabul – destroying a vehicle that was said to be carrying “multiple” ISIS-K suicide bombers.
U.S. military officials celebrated the drone strike as having successfully thwarted a second terrorist attack on Hamid Karzai airport, where many Afghans were waiting to be evacuated on flights. But civilians were also killed. VICE World News spoke to a man who said 10 members of his family died in the strike. He said six of them had been unrecognisable, and were so completely burnt that it was difficult to find anything from them to bury. The four other corpses from members of the same family were taken to the hospital and were being prepared for burial on Monday. Six of the victims were children, with the youngest just two years old.
Mujahid condemned the drone strike and criticised the U.S. for failing to inform the Taliban before calling it in. Mujahid told China's state television CGTN on Monday that “if there was any potential threat in Afghanistan, it should have been reported to us, not an arbitrary attack that has resulted in civilian casualties.”
For many Afghans on the ground, however, the West’s surrender of Afghanistan to Taliban militants was not a joyous occasion.
“I feel very bad and I am currently at home…I am planning to go to a neighbouring country. Life is very hard here... I think everything will deteriorate very soon,” a 22-year-old college student and activist told VICE World News on the day Americans left. “I had some hopes on the first days but I’ve been noticing that the Taliban have not changed. They have displayed the same barbarism they had 20 years ago. I witnessed house-by-house searches where they were using manpower and treating people harshly.”
There is also disappointment among Afghans who helped the United States during their time in the country but are still trapped in Kabul.
“They left us to be in danger,” an Afghan journalist who worked for an American-funded media agency told VICE World News. “I am scared of what will happen after they leave here. Our future is uncertain and no one can [predict] what will happen next for us.”
In his statement, Biden declared that the U.S. would continue to work with its international partners in order to “ensure safe passage for any Americans, Afghan partners, and foreign nationals who want to leave Afghanistan” – in part by letting the Taliban know that they are expected to grant freedom of travel to those left within the country moving forward. The Taliban has reportedly agreed to allow foreign nationals and Afghans with relevant travel documents to leave the country safely after the international rescue mission ends, but whether they will honor their word remains to be seen.
“The Taliban has made commitments on safe passage and the world will hold them to their commitments,” Biden said. He further noted that America’s continued work alongside their international partners “will include ongoing diplomacy in Afghanistan and coordination with partners in the region to reopen the airport allowing for continued departure for those who want to leave and delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.”
The U.S. has relocated its Afghanistan diplomatic mission to Qatar, which has hosted talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.
Even with their Western opponents now gone, however, the Taliban have a lot left to address. A massive brain drain has resulted in the loss of thousands of Afghan talent, experts predict a looming economic collapse, and violence is expected to continue as ISIS-K seek to destabilise the new government. Most importantly, it will be an uphill climb for the Taliban to convince Afghans that they have their best interests at heart, as they have claimed since they overthrew the U.S.-backed government.
“Life is tough here, and it’s going to get tougher,” the student said. “I am trapped. I need to leave as soon as possible.”
With additional reporting from Pallavi Pundir.