Last US military planes depart Kabul airport, marking an end to America’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan

A US Air Force aircraft takes off from the Kabul airport
A US Air Force aircraft taking off from the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. Aamir Qureshi/Getty Images
  • The last US military planes left Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday.
  • Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said “no words” could capture the extent of US troops’ sacrifices.
  • Afghanistan faces an uncertain future with the Taliban back in control.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The last US military planes in Afghanistan departed Monday, marking an end to America’s presence in the country after roughly two decades of war.

“I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of our military mission to evacuate American citizens, third-country nationals, and vulnerable Afghans,” US Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the commander of US Central Command, said. “The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30 at 3:29 p.m. East Coast time” – just before midnight in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

“The last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan,” McKenzie said. “No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who served.”

The Biden administration had set an August 31 deadline to complete evacuations and the US military withdrawal.

The Taliban appeared to mark the occasion with celebratory gunfire.

The US departure from Afghanistan came with the Taliban back in control of the country for the first time since 2001, when a US invasion pushed the militant Islamist group from power. The planes lifted off just days after a devastating suicide bombing outside the airport left scores dead, including dozens of Afghans and 13 US service members – the deadliest day for the US military in a decade.

Afghans face an uncertain future under Taliban rule, and not everyone who wanted to leave the country was able to.

The Kabul airport has been a constant scene of chaos since the Taliban marched into Kabul in mid-August.

The US says 122,300 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the end of July. But thousands of Afghan allies were left behind, alongside fewer than 250 Americans. McKenzie on Monday said the number of Americans remaining in Afghanistan was in the “very low hundreds.”

America’s final days in Afghanistan were filled with violence and mayhem

Afghans view aftermath of a US drone strike
Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle in Kabul targeted and hit earlier Sunday afternoon by an American drone strike. Marcus Yam/Getty Images

After the deadly suicide bombing in Kabul on Thursday, carried out by ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State terrorist group, the US on Friday conducted a drone strike in the Nangarhar province – east of the capital – that officials said killed two ISIS-K fighters.

The US also conducted a drone strike in Kabul on Sunday, targeting what officials said was a vehicle filled with explosives set to be used in an ISIS-K attack. But at least 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children, were killed as a result of the strike, according to what family members and witnesses told The New York Times. The US on Monday also intercepted rockets fired at the airport as evacuations were winding down. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the rocket fire.

The Trump administration set the US withdrawal in motion via a February 2020 deal with the Taliban. President Joe Biden largely stuck to this plan, though he did extend the timeline.

Though polling consistently indicated most Americans agreed it was time to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, more recent surveys have found that many disapprove of the way Biden has handled the pullout. Biden has faced bipartisan criticism over his administration’s approach to the withdrawal, particularly in relation to providing assistance to Afghans who helped the US during the war and could face reprisals from the Taliban.

The Biden administration has also acknowledged that it failed to anticipate the rapid pace at which the Taliban reclaimed the country, despite prior warnings that a US withdrawal could lead the Afghan government to collapse. In many cases, the Taliban captured major cities without facing much of a fight from the US-trained and US-equipped Afghan military.

Opponents of the withdrawal have also expressed concerns that Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorist groups that pose a danger to the US. But proponents of the pullout have contended it was long past time for the US to leave, arguing that foreign terrorist groups don’t pose a large-enough threat to justify maintaining a troop presence in the country.

The war in Afghanistan – the longest conflict in US history – began in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The US invaded to pursue and destroy Al Qaeda, the terror organization responsible for the attacks, which the Taliban had opened its doors to. Al Qaeda has faced major leadership losses over the years, including via a US operation that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, but the group is still in operation. ISIS-K has also emerged as a threat in the region.

Since 2001, the US spent $US2.26 ($AU3) trillion in Afghanistan, according to an estimate from Brown University’s Costs of War project. The war has also claimed thousands of lives. An estimated 66,000 Afghan national military and police officers were killed during the war. And as of April, 2,448 US service members had been killed in Afghanistan. More than 47,000 Afghan civilians were also killed during the war, per Costs of War.