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US troops exit Afghanistan after 20-year military presence

US troops exit Afghanistan after 20-year military presence

7 min. 31.08.2021
America’s longest war ended with a rushed withdrawal of more than 123,000 people since August 14
Taliban Badri special force fighters arrive at Kabul airport on August 31 after the US pulled all its troops out
Taliban Badri special force fighters arrive at Kabul airport on August 31 after the US pulled all its troops out
Photo credit: AFP

The US officially ended its military presence in Afghanistan on Tuesday with the final flight out of Kabul, concluding two decades of American involvement touched off by the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“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,” General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, said Monday afternoon in the US. “The last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan.”

America’s longest war ended with a rushed withdrawal of more than 123,000 people since August 14. That followed the Taliban advance to Kabul, and the killing of 13 US service members in a suicide bombing outside the capital city’s airport last week.

Those deaths followed the loss of about 2,400 Americans, even more employees of American contractors and tens of thousands of Afghans, as well as about $1 trillion in US spending since the conflict began. The war has dragged on so long that a huge slice of Afghanistan’s population has lived their entire lives with their nation at war, while the US troops who were killed last week were mostly infants when New York’s Twin Towers were brought down. 

President Joe Biden, who set the August 31 departure date, said in a statement Monday 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.”

Biden, who said he will address the nation on the withdrawal on Tuesday afternoon Washington time, said the Taliban who now rule Afghanistan have “made commitments on safe passage and the world will hold them to their commitments.”

General McKenzie said some Americans -- numbering in the “low 100s” -- who wanted to leave were not able to get to the airport in time for the military to transport them. No U.S. citizens were evacuated on the last five flights. Leaving Americans behind is sure to prompt criticism of the Biden administration from lawmakers from both parties.

In remarks later Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is moving its Afghanistan consular work to Doha, Qatar, which had been the site of talks with the Taliban over the last two years. He said US humanitarian assistance to Afghans would continue but any engagement with the Taliban would be motivated solely by US national interests.

“Every step we take will be based not on what the Taliban-led government says but what it does to live up to its commitments,” Blinken said. “The Taliban seeks international legitimacy and support. Our message is any legitimacy and any support will have to be earned.”

Blinken didn’t say how the US and allies -- bolstered by a United Nations Security Council resolution approved Monday -- would exert pressure on the Taliban. But earlier in the day White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “we have an enormous amount of leverage, including access to the global marketplace,” suggesting the use of existing and perhaps new economic sanctions against the Taliban if they don’t cooperate.

Islamic State

General McKenzie said an offshoot of Islamic State blamed for the airport bombing last week was working until the final hours of the US presence to launch more attacks. But the top American general for the Middle East said a U.S. retaliatory strike on Sunday against the group, known as ISIS-K, disrupted their plans and will become the Taliban’s problem now.  

“I believe the Taliban are going to have their hands full with ISIS-K,” McKenzie said. 

Even as the pace of the evacuation and withdrawal picked up in recent weeks, a bipartisan chorus of U.S. lawmakers and allies urged Biden to put off his end-August deadline, saying more time was needed to get American citizens and Afghans who aided the US effort out of the country.  

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that Biden should “forget about August 31” and send troops out beyond the Kabul airport’s perimeter to ensure more people are evacuated. Democratic Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan cited “strong bipartisan support” to extend the deadline. 

But Biden wouldn’t budge. His only concession after inheriting President Donald Trump’s 2020 peace deal with the Taliban was to delay the original troop withdrawal from May to August. The president, who opposed sending more forces to Afghanistan when he served as Barack Obama’s vice president, said he couldn’t justify more American deaths and the military force increase that would be needed to stay. 

America’s mission was complete after al-Qaeda was routed in the country and its leader, Osama bin Laden, killed in neighbouring Pakistan a decade ago, he argued. 

“I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president,” Biden said in an address to the nation August 16. “I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference.” 

The departure of foreign forces leaves huge questions remaining for one of the world’s poorest and war-torn countries. The Taliban have entered talks with officials from previous governments as it seeks to consolidate its hold on power and broaden its base of public support. But the group’s access to about $9.5 billion in central bank assets remains frozen by the U.S., and the World Bank has suspended billions of dollars worth of projects in the nation. 

‘Weapons Shifted’

“The weapons have shifted, if you will, from the military realm to the diplomatic realm,” McKenzie, the Centcom chief, told reporters. 

Perhaps to help win foreign support, the Taliban have vowed a more moderate approach to governing than when the group ruled in the late 1990s and was condemned by the international community for its treatment of women and other human rights violations. Yet the UN has already cited troubling human rights reports emerging from Afghanistan, and global food agencies have warned of the potential for widespread shortages of basic goods. 

While the Taliban were quickly ousted from power in late 2001 after they refused to extradite bin Laden, they spent years rebuilding in remote parts of the country, despite a US troop presence that reached 100,000 during the Obama administration. 

The Taliban offensive gathered momentum after the Trump administration announced last year that it had reached a deal with the group to withdraw American forces by May this year. The agreement, made with little participation from the Afghan government, asked little of the Taliban militants other than demand they not attack American soldiers. 

Biden, taking office in January, decided to stick with the broader deal, pushing back the deadline to September, at first, and then August. But the US and its allies expected President Ashraf Ghani’s government to survive their departure, at least for months. 

That assumption fell apart this month as Taliban forces swept across provincial capitals in weeks, arriving in Kabul as the Afghan defense forces the US spent more than $80 billion training collapsed. 

The US launched a massive evacuation process in late July, beginning with the departures of applicants for Special Immigrant Visas, a program enacted in 2006 to protect and reward Afghans who aided US forces. 

Since the end of last month, the US has relocated more than 123,000 people out of Afghanistan, the White House said Monday, including more than 6,000 Americans. Yet advocates say there are hundreds of thousands of Afghans who could be under threat from the Taliban after the US leaves because of their roles in the military mission. 

McKenzie said the U.S. had the ability to bring Americans out until about 12 hours before the final military planes departed. 

“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie said. “We did not get everyone out who we wanted to get out.”

The longer-term political damage to Biden from the killing of the 13 troops last week, on top of the US failure to anticipate the rapid Taliban victory, remains to be seen. The president and his team had warned the public that terrorists would seek to capitalize on the US departure, and the administration has counted on U.S. weariness with what has come to be known as a “forever war.” 

But the deaths of so many troops with just days to go before the withdrawal will be tough for the administration to get past. 

With American troops no longer in charge of Kabul’s airport, US and European leaders are demanding that their citizens and Afghans at risk be allowed to leave the country freely, and Taliban leaders have said they will respect the freedom to travel.

But for now the militant group is back in charge. In a conclusion American leaders didn’t envision when special forces troops first arrived in the country in late 2001, Afghanistan will be under Taliban rule when the US marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks next month. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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