The war in Afghanistan concluded quietly at 3:29 p.m. Eastern time on Monday, with a C-17 flight out of Kabul bearing just a few passengers, including the final U.S. military commander on the ground and the last remaining chief U.S. diplomat there. American military planners informed their Taliban counterparts of roughly when and how they planned to leave and briefed the U.S. press shortly after 4:30 p.m., when the final aircraft cleared Afghan airspace.
“Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended,” President Joe Biden said in a statement released after the departure of the plane.
It ended what began in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, with one of the U.S. military’s most stunning demonstrations of power across its arsenals, from covert operations on the ground to incredibly sophisticated airpower overhead.
Monday’s flight departed two weeks after the Taliban’s lightning onslaught across the country, forcing chaos on the ground that America has left behind. The insurgent group toppled the U.S.-backed government within 24 hours of arriving at Kabul, securing the capitulation of the trillion-dollar infrastructure that five American presidents hoped would last without direct Western support.
And it leaves behind a series of troubling questions, beginning with the fate of the remaining Americans, eligible Afghans and third-country nationals that desperately attempted to get to the Kabul airport before the Biden administration’s self-imposed deadline of Aug. 31 but could not, due to the dangerous security situation on the ground.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in televised remarks Monday evening that the U.S. will continue to work to support Afghans, including through continued support to U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations operating there.
“We expect those efforts will not be impeded by the Taliban or anyone else,” Blinken said.
U.S. military commanders confirmed Monday afternoon that many remained locked in the country under Taliban control but said the State Department – without an official presence on the ground – was now responsible for negotiating their withdrawal. They now face increasingly potent threats from empowered terrorist groups, chiefly a branch of the Islamic State group known as ISIS-K, that carried out a deadly attack on the airport last week that killed U.S. service members and has designs of further violence.
Yet the White House has stood firm behind its decision with an apparent sense of inevitability, citing the work of the U.S. military to carry out its largest airlift in history.
“They have done it with unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve,” Biden said in his statement Monday, adding that he would address the American public on Tuesday regarding why he did not extend the U.S. military presence to try to bring home the remaining Americans in Afghanistan and other partners there – a decision he said had “unanimous” support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders on the ground.
The five-paragraph statement amounted to his first on Afghanistan since public remarks last Thursday about the conflict in which he pledged retaliation for the 11 dead Marines, one dead sailor and another soldier who died in the bombing at the airport – many of whom were infants during the Sept. 11 attacks.
It remains unclear precisely how the U.S. plans to proceed in Afghanistan. Administration and military officials on Monday suggested the U.S. maintains, as White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki put it, “an enormous amount of leverage” over the Taliban. Yet the U.S. no longer has a presence on the ground there, and other world powers, chiefly Russia and China, who hold consequential sway in world forums such as the United Nations, have already recognized the insurgent network as the rightful government in Kabul.
Blinken on Monday said the U.S. diplomatic presence for Afghanistan will set up in Doha, Qatar, with a new leadership team. He referenced a U.N. Security Council resolution earlier in the day that includes an expectation the Taliban will adhere to its own prior pledges to allow anyone to leave Afghanistan who wishes to do so, including Afghans who worked with the U.S. during the war.
“While we have expectations for the Taliban, that doesn’t mean we will rely on the Taliban,” Blinken said, without providing specifics for how the U.S. can hold the insurgent network accountable.
No clear answers exist for how the U.S. could ever secure the rights of women and girls it helped establish after toppling the Taliban’s rule early in the war or how it could secure the tens of billions of dollars worth of expensive military equipment it invested in the U.S.-backed military forces – such as tanks, rifles, ammunition and night-vision goggles – to which the Taliban and its foreign backers now have free access.
U.S. Central Command chief Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, as did his son, appeared somewhat stunned when he spoke to the press on Monday, detailing surprisingly civil interactions with Taliban commanders who oversee the network he has fought to defeat for two decades. When asked how he felt about that, he demurred.
“I was very conflicted,” McKenzie said in a candid moment during a televised briefing at the Pentagon from his headquarters in Tampa, Florida. “I am going to be thinking about that in the days ahead.”
He described Taliban cooperation with the U.S. evacuation mission in recent days as “actually very helpful and useful to us as we closed down operations.”
McKenzie detailed that despite assertions from Biden and other top leaders, the U.S. did not withdraw all of its own citizens, nor the Afghans it had pledged it would protect in exchange for their cooperation in the war effort. The military presence on the ground at the airport retained the ability to bring them out of the country, but many were not able to get to the airfield amid the chaos in the capital city.
“The military phase is over, but our desire to bring these people out remains as intense as it was before,” McKenzie said. “The Department of State will now take the lead on it.”
The U.S. would not have been able to accomplish that mission if it had stayed for an additional week or so, he added, batting down suggestions from Capitol Hill and elsewhere that Biden should have ordered an extension to his deadline.
Yet vitriol poured in from the legislature nonetheless moments after the Pentagon announcement. Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska faulted a “national disgrace,” citing a series of decisions the administration made, including shuttering its final military base at Bagram Airfield, an hour outside Kabul, before falling back on the capital shortly before it fell to the Taliban. He also faulted the decision to coordinate with the insurgent group.
“The president made the morally indefensible decision to leave Americans behind. Dishonor was the president’s choice. May history never forget this cowardice,” Sasse said in a statement.
Biden even faced criticism from traditionally friendly corners. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in a statement shortly after the announcement of the end of the war called the president’s overall plan to withdraw “premature” and expressed grave concern about women and girls in Afghanistan as well as pressing terrorism threats.
“It is paramount that the United States remain engaged with our international partners to evacuate remaining U.S. citizens and Afghan allies, prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, push the Taliban for accountability and ensure that the ISIS-K terrorists culpable for the murders of American service members pay for their crimes,” the New Hampshire Democrat said.
Indeed, the most pressing danger is Afghanistan is the surging terrorist threat that appears to be metastasizing there – the very problem that prompted the U.S. to invade one of the poorest and most corrupt countries on Earth, even though the plotters of Sept. 11 also relied on coordination cells in Saudi Arabia and other countries.
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies reported Monday that Osama bin Laden’s chief of security returned to his hometown in Afghanistan earlier in the day accompanied by a band of heavily armed Taliban fighters in brand new military trucks.
“The video of al Haq is evidence that Al Qaeda commanders now feel secure enough to appear publicly in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan,” the foundation’s Bill Roggio wrote in an analysis note.
McKenzie assesses as many as 2,000 “Hardcore ISIS fighters” are operating in Afghanistan now, some of whom were freed in recent days from jails the U.S. originally ran at Bagram and elsewhere.
“That’s going to be a challenge for the Taliban, I believe, in the days ahead,” McKenzie said.
It will also pose serious challenges for U.S. intelligence and military planners. The Pentagon has touted in recent days its ability to conduct “over-the-horizon strikes” in Afghanistan without a presence on the ground. The White House’s Psaki boasted of that capability on Monday in response to a question about retaliatory drone strikes the U.S. carried out in response to the airport bombing, saying it “tells you the over-the-horizon capacity is working.”
Yet those capabilities existed while the U.S. still had a presence on the ground. The Biden administration has so far failed to secure agreements with any of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries to establish new counterterrorism and air bases there, notably, according to several sources who spoke with U.S. News, due to pressure from Russia and China.
Yet the administration, at least publicly, has attempted to portray the devastating and embarrassing circumstances in Afghanistan not as a loss, but an opportunity for a new era.
“A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun,” Antony Blinken said Monday night. “It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy.”