- August 31, 2021
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President Joe Biden says American forces will be out of Afghanistan tomorrow. What happens to the country next? Bloomberg’s Annmarie Hordern reports on “Bloomberg Surveillance.”
WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan late Monday, ending America’s longest war and closing a chapter in military history likely to be remembered for colossal failures, unfulfilled promises and a frantic final exit that cost the lives of more than 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, some barely older than the war.
Hours ahead of President Joe Biden’s Tuesday deadline for shutting down a final airlift, and thus ending the U.S. war, Air Force transport planes carried a remaining contingent of troops from Kabul airport. Thousands of troops had spent a harrowing two weeks protecting a hurried and risky airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape a country once again ruled by Taliban militants.
In announcing the completion of the evacuation and war effort. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 p.m. Washington time, or one minute before midnight in Kabul. He said a number of American citizens, likely numbering in “the very low hundreds,” were left behind, and that he believes they will still be able to leave the country.
The airport had become a U.S.-controlled island, a last stand in a 20-year war that claimed more than 2,400 American lives.
A U.S military aircraft takes off from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.
The closing hours of the evacuation were marked by extraordinary drama. American troops faced the daunting task of getting final evacuees onto planes while also getting themselves and some of their equipment out, even as they monitored repeated threats — and at least two actual attacks — by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate. A suicide bombing on Aug. 26 killed 13 American service members and some 169 Afghans.
The final pullout fulfilled Biden’s pledge to end what he called a “forever war” that began in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania. His decision, announced in April, reflected a national weariness of the Afghanistan conflict. Now he faces condemnation at home and abroad, not so much for ending the war as for his handling of a final evacuation that unfolded in chaos and raised doubts about U.S. credibility.
The U.S. war effort at times seemed to grind on with no endgame in mind, little hope for victory and minimal care by Congress for the way tens of billions of dollars were spent for two decades. The human cost piled up — tens of thousands of Americans injured in addition to the dead, and untold numbers suffering psychological wounds they live with or have not yet recognized they will live with.
More than 1,100 troops from coalition countries and more than 100,000 Afghan forces and civilians died, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.
In Biden’s view the war could have ended 10 years ago with the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida extremist network planned and executed the 9/11 plot from an Afghanistan sanctuary. Al-Qaida has been vastly diminished, preventing it thus far from again attacking the United States.
Congressional committees, whose interest in the war waned over the years, are expected to hold public hearings on what went wrong in the final months of the U.S. withdrawal. Why, for example, did the administration not begin earlier the evacuation of American citizens as well as Afghans who had helped the U.S. war effort and felt vulnerable to retribution by the Taliban? It wasn’t clear whether any American citizens who wanted to get out were left behind, but untold thousands of at-risk Afghans were.
It was not supposed to end this way. The administration’s plan, after declaring its intention to withdraw all combat troops, was to keep the U.S. Embassy in Kabul open, protected by a force of about 650 U.S. troops, including a contingent that would secure the airport along with partner countries. Washington planned to give the now-defunct Afghan government billions more to prop up its army.
Biden now faces doubts about his plan to prevent al-Qaida from regenerating in Afghanistan and of suppressing threats posed by other extremist groups such as the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate. The Taliban are enemies of the Islamic State group but retain links to a diminished al-Qaida.
The final U.S. exit included the withdrawal of its diplomats, although the State Department has left open the possibility of resuming some level of diplomacy with the Taliban depending on how they conduct themselves in establishing a government and adhering to international pleas for the protection of human rights.
The speed with which the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15 caught the Biden administration by surprise. It forced the U.S. to empty its embassy and frantically accelerate an evacuation effort that featured an extraordinary airlift executed mainly by the U.S. Air Force, with American ground forces protecting the airfield. The airlift began in such chaos that a number of Afghans died on the airfield, including at least one who attempted to cling to the airframe of a C-17 transport plane as it sped down the runway.
By the evacuation’s conclusion, well over 100,000 people, mostly Afghans, had been flown to safety. The dangers of carrying out such a mission while surrounded by the newly victorious Taliban and faced with attacks by the Islamic State came into tragic focus on Aug. 26 when an IS suicide bomber detonated himself at an airport gate, killing at least 169 Afghans and 13 Americans.
Speaking shortly after that attack, Biden stuck to his view that ending the war was the right move. He said it was past time for the United States to focus on threats emanating from elsewhere in the world.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “It was time to end a 20-year war.”
The war’s start was an echo of a promise President George W. Bush made while standing atop of the rubble in New York City three days after hijacked airliners slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
“The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” he declared through a bullhorn.
Less than a month later, on Oct. 7, Bush launched the war. The Taliban’s forces were overwhelmed and Kabul fell in a matter of weeks. A U.S.-installed government led by Hamid Karzai took over and bin Laden and his al-Qaida cohort escaped across the border into Pakistan. The stage was set for an ultimately futile U.S. effort to build a stable Afghanistan that could partner with the United States to prevent another 9/11.
The initial plan was to extinguish bin Laden’s al-Qaida, which had used Afghanistan as a staging base for its attack on the United States. The grander ambition was to fight a “Global War on Terrorism” based on the belief that military force could somehow defeat Islamic extremism. Afghanistan was but the first round of that fight. Bush chose to make Iraq the next, invading in 2003 and getting mired in an even deadlier conflict that made Afghanistan a secondary priority until Barack Obama assumed the White House in 2009 and later that year decided to escalate in Afghanistan.
Obama pushed U.S. troop levels to 100,000, but the war dragged on while the Taliban used Pakistan as a sanctuary.
When Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017 he wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan but was persuaded not only to stay but to add several thousand U.S. troops and escalate attacks on the Taliban. Two years later his administration was looking for a deal with the Taliban, and in February 2020 the two sides signed an agreement that called for a complete U.S. withdrawal by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban made a number of promises including a pledge not to attack U.S. troops.
Biden weighed advice from members of his national security team who argued for retaining the 2,500 troops who were in Afghanistan by the time he took office in January. But in mid-April he announced his decision to fully withdraw and initially set September as a deadline for getting out.
The Taliban then pushed an offensive that by early August toppled key cities, including provincial capitals. The Afghan army largely collapsed, sometimes surrendering rather than taking a final stand, and shortly after President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital, the Taliban rolled into Kabul and assumed control on Aug. 15.
Some parts of their country modernized during the U.S. war years, but Afghanistan remains a tragedy, poor, unstable and with many of its people fearing a return to the brutality the country — especially women and girls — endured when the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001.
The U.S. failures were numerous. It degraded but never defeated the Taliban and ultimately failed to build an Afghan army that could hold off the insurgents, despite $83 billion in U.S. spending to train and equip the army. Among the unfulfilled promises: an enduring partnership with a U.S.-friendly Afghan government that could ensure the country would not again become a breeding ground for extremists bent on attacking the United States.
U.S. Army flight medic SGT Jaime Adame, top, cares for seriously wounded Marine CPL Andrew Smith following an insurgent attack on board a medevac helicopter Sunday, May 15, 2011, from the U.S. Army’s Task Force Lift “Dust Off”, Charlie Company 1-214 Aviation Regiment north of Sangin, in the volatile Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
A U.S. soldier of B company, 4th Infantry Regiment frisks an afghan man in his house during a search operation in Sinan village in Zabul province, southeastern Afghanistan, Monday, April 2, 2007. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Local girls look at U.N. workers unloading ballot kits from a U.N. helicopter in Ghumaipayan Mahnow village, some 410 kilometers (256 miles) northeast of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Oct. 4, 2004. By air is the only way to deliver the electoral material in the inaccessible areas of the Badakhshan province. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Pakistani bank notes covered in blood are displayed on the body of a dead suicide bomber after police found them in his pocket in the center of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Wednesday, March 12, 2014, after an attack on the former Afghan intelligence headquarters. Police officials said three insurgents who tried to storm the former headquarters of Afghanistan’s intelligence service in southern Kandahar died in a gunbattle with security forces. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
Afghan children play football in a street in Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday, July 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Newly trained female officers from the Afghan National Army sit in front seats as a new batch of officers attend their graduation ceremony at National Army’s training center in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Afghan farmers harvest wheat outside Kabul, Afghanistan, June 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
Afghan anti-al-Qaida fighters rest at a former al-Qaida base in the White Mountains near Tora Bora Wednesday Dec. 19, 2001, behind a string of ammunition found after the retreat of al-Qaida members from the area. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Afghan militiamen join Afghan defense and security forces during a gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
Defecting Taliban fighters maneuver a tank through the front line near the village of Amirabad, between Kunduz and Taloqan, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2001. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
During a sporadic firefight, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. and flight medic Robert B. Cowdrey, of La Junta, Colo., top right, with Task Force Pegasus, coordinates a medical evacuation mission as Marine infantrymen carry onto a helicopter the second of two wounded Taliban fighters captured minutes earlier, according to witnesses, in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Wednesday Feb. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
A U.S. Army soldier from Scout Platoon 502 Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, looks at the body of a suspected Taliban IED emplacer who was killed in a coalition missile strike in Zhari district, Kandahar province, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. The Scouts’ mission was to support roadside bomb clearance efforts in the militant stronghold, the latest days-long phase of Operation Dragon Strike. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A woman poll worker waits for voters to arrive at a polling station in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sept. 18, 2005. Afghanistan held landmark parliamentary elections, the first in three decades. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
An Afghan woman waits in a changing room to try out a new Burqa, in a shop in the old city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, April 11, 2013. Before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, the Burqa was infrequently worn in cities. While they were in power, the Taliban required the wearing of a Burqa in public. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
Basera, 13, right, and Saira, 10, wait for their class to begin at Loy Ghar school, in the bombed-out carcass of the Kabul Theater in Afghanistan’s capital, April 20, 2005. The bullet-riddled building has become a place of hope for more than 400 students looking to rebuild their lives after decades of war. Classrooms have sprung up near windows or where bombs have destroyed enough of the wall to allow in sunlight. (AP Photo/Tomas Munita)
An Afghan police officer gestures to German ISAF soldiers in Yaftal e Sofla, in the mountainous region of Feyzabad, east of Kunduz, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
Airborne in a U.S. Army Task Force Pegasus helicopter, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. and flight medic Robert B. Cowdrey, of La Junta, Colo., gives medical care to an Afghan National Army soldier with a gunshot wound, during a medevac mission over Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
An Afghan barber works on a customer in his shop as a portrait of Afghanistan national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud adorns its door in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Afghan policemen simulate weapons orientation during a training session with U.S. soldiers from 2nd PLT Diablos 552nd Military Police Company, on the outskirts of Kandahar City, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
An Afghan police officer carries an injured unidentified German national as smoke bellows from the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009. Gunmen attacked a guest house used by U.N. staff in the Afghan capital of Kabul. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
An Afghan soldier, left, and a police man peek through a window as they queue with others to get their registration card on the last day of voter registration for the upcoming presidential elections outside a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
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