The last U.S. military plane has left Afghanistan, U.S. officials announced, ending 20 years of war but also closing down the main route home for stranded Americans and Afghans who are now running for their lives.
“I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters via videoconference. “The last C-17 lifted off from Hamad Karzai International Airport on August 30, this afternoon, at 3:29 p.m., East Coast time. And the last manned aircraft is now clear of the airspace above Afghanistan.”
Pentagon and White House officials had earlier acknowledged that operations would end with some American citizens and others left behind.
For “Americans and other individuals that want to be able to leave Afghanistan after our withdrawal is complete, the State Department is going to continue to work across many different levers to facilitate that,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. “We do not anticipate a military role in that.”
The lightning-fast collapse of Kabul just two weeks ago exposed just how ill-prepared the State Department and supporting U.S. government agencies were to get their employees out.
Some evacuation flights were underway before the capital fell, flying some 5,600 people out under an effort the U.S. government dubbed Operation Allies Refuge. But on Aug. 15, the day the Taliban took over Kabul, tens of thousands of diplomats, U.S. citizens, and Afghan partners still needed rescue.
Within days, 6,000 U.S. troops and dozens of C-17 Globemaster III airlifters were deployed to help. C-17s are usually manifested for a maximum load of about 300 passengers. On one now-iconic flight, Reach 871, the crew flew out 823.
The rescue effort peaked on Aug. 23, when some 21,600 Americans, Afghans, and allied partners left aboard U.S. and allied military and chartered aircraft.
By the time the last military plane departed in the early hours of Aug. 31 Kabul time the airlift had flown out more than 116,700 people on more than 720 military and chartered flights in just 15 days, according to daily passenger and flight data released by the White House.
In all, more than 122,300 people were rescued, including about 5,000 who were evacuated before the fall of Kabul, according to the data.
The Kabul airport rescue is “the largest airlift that the U.S. military has conducted” in its history, Kirby said.
But the operation was also marked by desperation and chaos. Several Afghans died after clinging to a departing C-17 on Aug. 23.
Thousands more faced danger, heat and panicked crowds to get to the airport, fearing for their lives as Taliban fighters went house to house seeking those who had aided the Americans.
Those who managed to pass or evade Taliban checkpoints joined huge throngs outside the airport’s security gates.
But once they got to the gates, not all were allowed in. Afghans were rejected because the State Department and other U.S. agencies or companies who had hired them under federal contracts failed to process the paperwork needed to be able to escape.
On many flights out, seats were empty and the security situation quickly worsened.
ISIS-K, a terror group U.S. forces had hunted in eastern Afghanistan for years closed in on Kabul airport. On Aug. 26 an ISIS-K fighter detonated a suicide vest at a screening point right outside the airport gate, killing eleven U.S. Marines, one soldier and one Navy corpsman. On Sunday, U.S. officials said an unmanned system destroyed an ISIS-K car carrying two suicide bombers heading for the Kabul airport.
In the final weekend of flights, the desperation of those still trapped on the ground in Afghanistan was also felt throughout a vast network of war veterans and volunteers who were feverishly working to find them a way out.
“If we don’t find a way to recover American citizens and SIVs, they will die,” one U.S. extraction volunteer wrote to Defense One on Saturday.
The U.S.-based volunteer was helping busloads of U.S. and Special Immigrant Visa evacuees whom she said had been blocked and harassed by the Taliban for days.
“In the last ten days we’ve coached a woman to give birth in literal dirt, an American citizen in a wheelchair was beaten, young girls shot in the face with gas, which resulted in extreme burns, and men and sons hunted and killed.”
“We have all hands on deck making asks to the White House, State Department, CIA, the Hill, ODNI, Centcom, SOCOM, JSOC, J3, and others,” she wrote. “We are being told ‘no one can help.'”
One U.S. special forces veteran reached out in another last-minute effort, after all previous efforts to get government help had failed. The Afghan he’d served with had “guarded us while we slept,” the veteran wrote. On Friday, the guard’s house “was raided…he is on the run for his life.”
For American citizens and their families still stranded, U.S. officials are pledging to continue to negotiate with the Taliban through economic and diplomatic means.
But it’s not clear how the U.S. will engage. On Sunday Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the U.S. will not keep a diplomatic presence on the ground in Afghanistan, even as scores of nations and the U.S. released a letter of their commitment to get any of their citizens out who are left behind.
Military rescue post-withdrawal is also an option, one defense official said.
“You’ve seen the U.S. military locate and extract citizens all over the world,” the defense official said. “There’s no reason we wouldn’t do it in Afghanistan.”
The veterans and groups who couldn’t get their Afghan partners out are now coaching them on how to stay alive.
“Don’t dress like westerners but instead, look like the Taliban and blend in,” one rescue group advised in an alert it sent out to multiple networks Saturday.
“You need to hide in plain sight to survive,” the group advised. “There is talk about an Afghan Resistance as well as getting people out across the border. That will take shape over the next few months. As much as we hope for this, you need to think about surviving with the Taliban starting THIS WEEKEND.”
“Right now, do not count on Americans to save you.”
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