Report

Last U.S. Troops Leave Afghanistan After 20 Years of War

More than a hundred American citizens remain in the Taliban-controlled country.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A U.S. military plane prepares to board evacuees at Kabul’s airport.
A U.S. Air Force aircrew prepare to load evacuees aboard a U.S. C-17 Globemaster III aircraft during the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 21. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Crul via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The U.S. military’s 20-year war in Afghanistan is now officially over.

On Monday night in Kabul, a mere one minute before midnight and U.S. President Joe Biden’s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline to extract U.S. forces, a final American C-17 aircraft took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport, capping weeks of chaotic evacuation efforts.

The last U.S. officials to leave Afghanistan were Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Ross Wilson, the acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, according to Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command.

The U.S. military’s 20-year war in Afghanistan is now officially over.

On Monday night in Kabul, a mere one minute before midnight and U.S. President Joe Biden’s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline to extract U.S. forces, a final American C-17 aircraft took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport, capping weeks of chaotic evacuation efforts.

The last U.S. officials to leave Afghanistan were Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Ross Wilson, the acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, according to Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command.

“Every single U.S. service member is now out of Afghanistan,” McKenzie said. “I can say that with absolute certainty.”

Officials described the evacuation of 123,000 people, most of them Afghans, as the largest noncombatant mission in U.S. history. The fate of tens of thousands of other vulnerable Afghans—including interpreters and others who supported the U.S. war effort, women’s rights activists, and journalists—remains unclear.

“We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” McKenzie conceded.

In a speech on Monday evening, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the United States will suspend its embassy presence in Afghanistan, instead opening a new diplomatic outpost to manage relations with Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar.

“The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun,” Blinken said.

The new office will be led by Ian McCary, the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and will lead consular work and administer humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, Blinken said.

Biden administration officials have insisted anyone who wants to leave will be able to safely depart with the Taliban’s consent—even with terrorists lurking around Kabul and the Taliban in control of the country.

But numerous reports from Kabul of Taliban fighters turning away potential evacuees cast doubts on U.S. assurances.

Blinken said as many as 200 U.S. citizens, likely closer to 100, remain in Afghanistan and wish to leave. “We’re trying to determine exactly how many. We’re going through manifests and calling and texting through our lists” to make contact with them, Blinken said. “Our commitment to them has no deadline.”

The U.S. withdrawal left Kabul’s airport essentially defunct, without air traffic control for landing planes, according to a notice sent to airmen as the U.S. military withdrew, leaving land borders the only point of exit. Taliban fighters reportedly celebrated with gunfire outside of the airport’s gates as U.S. military transport planes departed.

Among some of the last Afghans to evacuate the country were 2,800 local employees who staffed the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, according to an internal State Department cable obtained by Foreign Policy. The embassy was at one point the largest foreign U.S. diplomatic outpost in the world, with thousands of personnel from the State Department, Defense Department, and other agencies as well as contractors staffing the sprawling compound. But it was swiftly evacuated and abandoned on Aug. 15 when the Taliban marched into Kabul. A skeleton crew of U.S. diplomatic personnel fell back to Kabul’s airport to help process U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans trying to evacuate.

The Biden administration was forced to hastily plan the exit of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies after the Taliban swept back Afghan national forces in a summer offensive that led to the collapse of the Afghan government. Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani unexpectedly fled the country as the capital fell to the Taliban, reportedly with little to no warning to either the U.S. government or his own aides.

The American exit leaves the Biden administration in an awkward position, forced to continue evacuation efforts in a country controlled by a U.S. adversary and with no U.S. military or diplomatic presence on the ground. Evacuations in the final days were hamstrung by a suicide bombing attack that rocked the airport on Aug. 26, killing at least 92 people, including 13 U.S. service members, in what amounted to the single deadliest day for the U.S. military in Afghanistan in more than a decade.

The Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan claimed credit for the attacks, which prompted a series of retaliatory U.S. drone strikes against the group in rural Nangarhar province and in Kabul—the second of which reportedly caused multiple civilian deaths.

Blinken asserted that the Taliban committed to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups. “We will hold them accountable to that commitment,” he said, while adding that the United States will prioritize counterterrorism efforts without having to rely on the Taliban’s word.

He also said the end of the U.S. mission “demands reflection.”

“We must learn its lessons and allow those lessons to shape how we think about fundamental questions of national security and foreign policy. We owe that to future diplomats, policymakers, military leaders, service leaders,” he said. “We owe that to the American people.”

Update, Aug. 30, 2021: This article was updated with remarks from Blinken.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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