The United States completed the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan on Monday, ending 20 years of war that culminated in the militant Taliban’s return to power.
Forced into a hasty and humiliating exit, Washington and its NATO allies carried out a massive but chaotic airlift over the past two weeks, but still left behind tens of thousands of Afghans who helped Western countries and might have qualified for evacuation.
Celebratory gunfire rang out in Kabul after completion of the US pullout that ended America’s longest war.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf said: “The last US soldier has left Kabul airport and our country gained complete independence,” Al Jazeera TV reported on Monday.
A contingent of Americans, estimated by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as under 200 and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.
President Joe Biden, in a statement, defended his decision to stick to a Tuesday deadline for withdrawing US forces even though it meant not everyone who wanted out could get out.
He said the world would hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for those who want to leave Afghanistan.
“Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended,” said Biden, who thanked the US military for carrying out the dangerous evacuation. He plans to address the American people on Tuesday afternoon.
Biden has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats for his handling of Afghanistan since the Taliban took over Kabul earlier this month after a lightning advance.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the US withdrawal a “national disgrace” that was “the direct result of President Biden’s cowardice and incompetence.”
“The president made the morally indefensible decision to leave Americans behind. Dishonor was the president’s choice,” he said in a statement.
But Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse tweeted: “Bravo to our diplomats, military, and intelligence agencies. An airlift of 120,000 people in that dangerous and tumultuous situation is something no one else could do.”
Biden has said the United States long ago achieved the objectives it set in ousting the Taliban in 2001 for harboring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
The 20-year conflict took the lives of nearly 2,500 US troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans and cost some US$2 trillion.
Only 38% of Americans approved of Biden’s handling of the Afghan pullout, while 51% disapproved, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Monday. Three-quarters of respondents wanted US forces to remain in the country until all American civilians could get out.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that the chief US diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out, which left at one minute before midnight in Kabul.
“Every single US service member is now out of Afghanistan. I can say that with 100% certainty,” he said.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out,” McKenzie told reporters.