The last vestiges of the American presence in Afghanistan departed the Kabul airport on Monday, halting an occupation that cost more than 170,000 lives and ended with a complete takeover of the country by the adversary the U.S. military spent two decades fighting.
American military leaders had said the United States would continue evacuation efforts and fully withdraw no later than Aug. 31, the deadline set by President Biden earlier this summer. But those efforts were wrapped up a full day early — just days after an attack on the airport by Islamic State Khorasan killed 13 U.S. service members and as many as 170 civilians in one of the war’s deadliest days.
Evacuation flights ended on Monday, and the military finished packing everything it intended to fly out of the airport onto transport planes before loading the remaining service members.
The last Air Force C-17, with the call sign MOOSE 85, departed at midnight local time carrying the final remaining American forces, a U.S. military official said.
“Tonight’s withdrawal signifies both the end of the military component of the evacuation, but also the end of the nearly 20-year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, 2001,” said Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command. “No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who served.”
More than 2,400 U.S. military personnel and nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians died in the 20-year war, in addition to tens of thousands of casualties among U.S. contractors, the Afghan military and national police, insurgents and others, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University.
President Biden said in a written statement that he would address the nation on Tuesday to mark the end of the war.
“I want to thank our commanders and the men and women serving under them for their execution of the dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan as scheduled — in the early morning hours of Aug. 31, Kabul time — with no further loss of American lives,” Mr. Biden said.
“For now,” he said, “I will report 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.”
General McKenzie said the last plane took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport at 11:59 p.m. local time on Monday. It cleared Afghan air space several minutes later, on Tuesday, Aug. 31, two U.S. military officials said.
Senior commanders made the decision a few days ago to depart unannounced roughly 24 hours before the withdrawal deadline, two military officials said. Commanders wanted a cushion in case there were security challenges or a plane broke down at the last minute. Stormy weather forecast for parts of Monday and Tuesday was another consideration.
There were also concerns that hundreds of Afghans could try to swarm the airfield in desperation on the last day, in a grim repeat of the chaos set off by the initial flights after Kabul fell on Aug. 15.
The risks posed by one more day of potential attacks by the Islamic State also loomed large, the officials said. On Monday morning, the U.S. military shot down rockets it said had been aimed at the airport. And a day earlier, a U.S. drone strike blew up a vehicle in Kabul that the military said was laden with explosives.
The Afghan commandos — the remnants of the Afghan security force — who were helping the Americans at the airport were among the last to be evacuated, along with their families, General McKenzie said. A Defense Department official said separately that the Afghan commandos were on one of the last planes out.
As the last elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations forces boarded their gray C-17s, the security cordon around the airfield grew tighter — “like the Alamo,” said one military official tracking the final hours — until the last transport plane was aloft.
Control of the airport was left in the hands of the Taliban, whose fighters celebrated by firing guns into the air.
A senior Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, took to Twitter early Tuesday and declared: “Our country has achieved a full independence, thanks to God.”
A few hundred Afghans were still waiting outside the airport perimeter on Monday evening, but were kept at a distance by Taliban fighters guarding the area.
The enormous evacuation operation, unfolding after the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Afghan government, airlifted some 123,000 people out of the country in the last two months, including about 6,000 Americans.
About 1,200 people had been airlifted from Kabul in the previous 24 hours, a White House spokeswoman said early Monday morning.
But that leaves behind at least 100,000 people, by one estimate, and possibly many more who might be eligible for an expedited U.S. visa and who dread staying in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Many are former interpreters for the U.S. military who are in some stage of the process to receive a Special Immigrant Visa, and who fear they are at immediate risk of being killed.
The United States and 97 other countries said on Sunday that they would continue to take in people fleeing Afghanistan and had secured an agreement with the Taliban to allow safe passage.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Monday evening that there were fewer than 200 American citizens left in Afghanistan who wanted to leave, and that the U.S. would help them do so. He said it was difficult to give an exact number because some dual citizens have lived in Afghanistan for years and have family there, and are struggling to decide whether to stay or go.
“If an American in Afghanistan tells us they want to stay for now, and in a week or month or year they reach out and say, ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ we will help them leave,” Mr. Blinken said.
The Taliban’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, announced on Friday that the group would not stop people from departing, no matter their nationality or whether they had worked for the United States during the 20-year war.
But whether the Taliban would uphold that commitment, and when the airport could reopen for commercial flights, was uncertain.
Hamid, a journalist for whom an international news organization had booked an exit ticket from Afghanistan, said American forces had not allowed him to enter the airport in the past few days.
“First, the Americans caused the fall of Afghanistan and did not support the government,” he said. “Then they did not allow us to go to the airport, and now I got stuck and they left us to the insurgents. I do not know what will happen to me.”
Jim Huylebroek, Helene Cooper, Jim Tankersley and Najim Rahim contributed reporting.
Hours after a U.S. military drone strike in Kabul on Sunday, Defense Department officials said that it had blown up a vehicle laden with explosives, eliminating a threat to Kabul’s airport from the Islamic State Khorasan group.
But at a family home in Kabul on Monday, survivors and neighbors said the strike had killed 10 people, including seven children, an aid worker for an American charity organization and a contractor with the U.S. military.
Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for the charity organization Nutrition and Education International, was on his way home from work after dropping off colleagues on Sunday evening, according to relatives and colleagues interviewed in Kabul.
As he pulled into the narrow street where he lived with his three brothers and their families, the children, seeing his white Toyota Corolla, ran outside to greet him. Some clambered aboard in the street, others gathered around as he pulled the car into the courtyard of their home.
It was then that they say the drone struck.
At the time of the attack, the Corolla was in a narrow courtyard inside a walled family compound. Its doors were blown out, and its windows shattered.
Mr. Ahmadi and some of the children were killed inside his car; others were fatally wounded in adjacent rooms, family members said. An Afghan official confirmed that three of the dead children were transferred by ambulance from the home on Sunday.
Journalists on the scene for The New York Times were unable to independently verify the family’s account.
Mr. Ahmadi’s daughter Samia, 21, was inside when she was struck by the blast wave. “At first I thought it was the Taliban,” she said. “But the Americans themselves did it.”
Samia said she staggered outside, choking, and saw the bodies of her siblings and relatives. “I saw the whole scene,” she said. “There were burnt pieces of flesh everywhere.”
The Pentagon acknowledged the possibility that Afghan civilians had been killed in the drone strike, but suggested that any civilian deaths resulted from the detonation of explosives in the vehicle that was targeted.
“We’re not in a position to dispute it,” John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman said Monday about reports on the ground of civilian casualties. He repeated earlier Pentagon statements that the military was investigating the strike on a vehicle two miles from Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“No military on the face of the earth works harder to avoid civilian casualties than the United States military,” Mr. Kirby said. “We take it very, very seriously. And when we know that we have caused innocent life to be lost in the conduct of our operations, we’re transparent about it.”
Among the dead was Samia’s fiancé, Ahmad Naser, 30, a former army officer and contractor with the U.S. military who had come from Herat, in western Afghanistan, in the hopes of being evacuated from Kabul.
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command said on Sunday that the U.S. military had carried out a drone strike against an Islamic State Khorasan vehicle planning to attack the airport. The group had claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the airport on Thursday.
On Monday, Capt. Bill Urban, the spokesman, reaffirmed an earlier statement that the military hit a valid target, an explosives-laden vehicle.
Mr. Ahmadi was a technical engineer for the local office of Nutrition and Education International, an American nonprofit based in Pasadena, Calif. His neighbors and relatives insisted that the engineer and his family members, many of whom had worked for the Afghan security forces, had no connection to any terrorist group.
They provided documents related to his long employment with the American charity, as well as Mr. Naser’s application for a Special Immigrant Visa, based on his service as a guard at Camp Lawton, in Herat.
“He was well respected by his colleagues and compassionate towards the poor and needy,” Steven Kwon, the president of NEI, said of Mr. Ahmadi in an email. He wrote that Mr. Ahmadi had just recently “prepared and delivered soy-based meals to hungry women and children at local refugee camps in Kabul.”
Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
WASHINGTON — American diplomats have left Afghanistan, and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will remain closed, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Monday, after the military announced that it had completed its withdrawal from the country.
The disintegration of U.S. diplomacy was a stunning turnabout from plans to stay and help Afghanistan transition from 20 years of war and work toward peace, however tenuous, with a government that would share power with the Taliban. Earlier this month, Mr. Blinken had pledged that the United States would remain “deeply engaged” in Afghanistan long after the military left.
But with the Taliban firmly in control of Afghanistan, what was one of the largest U.S. diplomatic missions in the world will for now be greatly scaled back, based in Doha, the Qatari capital, and focused largely on processing visas for refugees and other immigrants.
“Given the uncertain security environment and political situation in Afghanistan, it was the prudent step to take,” Mr. Blinken said in remarks at the State Department.
He sought to portray the departure as a “new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan.”
“It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy,” Mr. Blinken said, commending the U.S. diplomats, troops and other personnel who had worked at the embassy, which just last month had employed around 4,000 people — including 1,400 Americans.
Left uncertain was whether American efforts to stabilize the Afghan government would continue — the main thrust of years of painstaking work and negotiations with leaders in Kabul that were supported by billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer funding.
Instead, Mr. Blinken said any engagement with the Taliban — a longtime U.S. enemy that seized power when President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan on Aug. 15 — “will be driven by one thing only: our vital national interests.”
Exactly four weeks earlier, on Aug. 2, Mr. Blinken left little doubt that the Biden administration intended to keep the U.S. Embassy in Kabul open.
“Our partnership with the people of Afghanistan will endure long after our service members have departed,” he said then. “We will keep engaging intensely in diplomacy to advance negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban with the goal of a political solution, which we believe is the only path to lasting peace.”
As many as 200 American citizens, and tens of thousands of Afghans, were left behind in a two-week military airlift that Mr. Blinken called one of the largest evacuation efforts in U.S. history. He demanded that the Taliban keep its word and allow them to safely leave once they have exit documents in hand.
He also said the United States would closely watch the Taliban’s efforts to stanch terrorism in Afghanistan, as it has said it will do, and continue to work with the international community to provide humanitarian aid to millions of Afghans who need food, medicine and health care after decades of war and political instability.
More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in recent weeks, including about 6,000 Americans.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, said it was “paramount” that the United States remain engaged with Afghanistan, adding in a statement that she had long worried that a premature American military withdrawal would unravel 20 years of work to build a stable government in Kabul.
“Our mission in Afghanistan has ended,” Ms. Shaheen said, “but our commitment to protect the American people, safeguard U.S. national security and maintain our global stability endures.”
It was a depressing coda for hundreds of American diplomats who had served at the U.S. Embassy since December 2001, when a handful of Foreign Service officers accompanied U.S. Marines who reclaimed the embassy compound from Taliban control. The embassy building itself had largely sat empty since 1989, when the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan after a 10-year war, and American diplomats were evacuated for protection.
The diplomatic mission’s staffing levels ballooned during a so-called civilian surge that coincided with an increase in military troops that began in 2010. The embassy compound in Kabul later expanded, with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional office space, employee apartments, fortified gates and blast walls over 15 acres.
From Doha, the new American mission will be led by Ian J. McCary, a career diplomat with 26 years at the State Department who had served as the embassy’s deputy chief of mission since last year.
For years, American diplomats have held peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, where the extremist group opened a political office years ago to establish relations with the broader international community. Additionally, the American military is firmly ensconced at Al Udeid Air Base outside Doha, which is being used now as a way station for tens of thousands of Afghans who have been evacuated.
By relocating to Doha, American diplomats will be able to keep a close eye on their two overriding priorities in Afghanistan: processing refugees and trying to keep the Taliban in check.
Both could prove to overwhelm a diplomatic system already under strain from having to revamp one of the most storied U.S. missions of a generation after being caught flat-footed.
Mr. Blinken struck a resolute tone about the diplomatic retreat, and in reminding Americans about the cost of war.
“America’s work in Afghanistan continues,” he said, adding that the State Department was moving forward with plans to regroup.
America’s longest war, with its casualties and the resources that were sunk into it over the past 20 years, “demands reflection,” Mr. Blinken said.
“We must learn its lessons, and allow those lessons to shape how we think about fundamental questions of national security and foreign policy,” he said. “We owe that to future diplomats, policymakers, military leaders, service members. We owe that to the American people.”
In the fear-filled days after the Taliban stormed into Kabul, she was hailed as the brave young woman who questioned one of the militants on live television, providing hope that Afghan women might not lose all their freedoms.
But days later, like others who feared the militants’ wrath, Behishta Arghand, a former news presenter with Tolo news, fled the country, landing with her parents and four siblings in a sparsely furnished villa in a walled compound on the outskirts of Doha, Qatar.
Ms. Arghand, 24, spoke proudly of her interview and said she hoped the Taliban would follow through on their vows to allow more openness than when they ruled the country before the United States invasion 20 years ago.
“We don’t have any government now,” she said in an interview. “We just hope they do what they promise. But now everyone is scared of the Taliban.”
Ms. Arghand recalled the shock she felt when she learned that the Taliban had entered Kabul, and the fear that gripped the Afghan capital the next day. Still, she said, she went to work to make a point about the role of women in public life.
“I wanted to show the Taliban that we want to work,” she said. “We want to be in the media. It’s our right in society.”
Ms. Arghand said she was presenting the news on Aug. 17 when she got a feeling that there was a guest in the studio. She soon realized it was Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a member of the Taliban’s media team.
She had only a few moments to prepare.
Her producers, she said, told her to try to draw out information without challenging her guest. But once on the air, she challenged him anyway, asking about reports that the Taliban had conducted house-to-house searches in the city.
After the interview, her phone was flooded with messages from friends and relatives who were both proud and terrified that she had questioned her guest so directly.
Not long after, she and her family fled, fearing that remaining in Kabul was too dangerous.
Ms. Arghand is now staying in a house with no television or internet. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be there. She doesn’t know where she’ll go next.
But she dreams of returning home someday to help women.
“If I am alive, I will do a lot for my home,” she said. “My country needs my generation.”
A plane carrying 12.5 metric tons of medical supplies landed in Afghanistan on Monday afternoon, the first such shipment to arrive since the Taliban seized control of the country, the World Health Organization said in a news release.
The supplies include trauma kits and interagency emergency health kits, collections of critical medicine and equipment that the W.H.O. said could meet the basic health needs of 200,000 people, treat 6,500 trauma patients and complete 3,500 surgeries. They will be delivered to 40 health facilities in 29 provinces across Afghanistan.
The W.H.O. used a plane provided by the government of Pakistan, which landed at the Mazar-i-Sharif airport in northern Afghanistan, the first of three flights planned with Pakistan International Airlines.
“After days of nonstop work to find a solution, I am very pleased to say that we have now been able to partially replenish stocks of health facilities in Afghanistan and ensure that — for now — W.H.O.-supported health services can continue,” Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the W.H.O.’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said in the release.
Afghan people face a slew of health concerns, including the extremely contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, which has become all but an afterthought during the turmoil after the Taliban takeover.
“In the midst of a pandemic, we’re extremely concerned by the large displacement of people and increasing cases of diarrhea, malnutrition, high blood pressure, probable cases of Covid-19 and reproductive health complications,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the W.H.O., said earlier this month. “There is an immediate need to ensure sustained humanitarian access and continuity of health services across the country, with a focus on ensuring women and girls have access to female health workers.”
Before Afghanistan’s government unraveled, its ministry of public health reported a third wave of coronavirus infections, with a record number of positive cases and deaths.
W.H.O. officials said in an email earlier this month that they were concerned that Covid-19 spikes exacerbated by the movement and mixing of newly displaced people, the low rate of vaccination among Afghans and the lack of medical supplies could further strain a health system struggling to keep up with trauma and emergency care.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, urged the United States to engage with the Taliban and provide urgently needed aid to Afghanistan.
In a phone call on Sunday, Mr. Yang warned Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, that the Chinese government’s cooperation on Afghanistan would depend on the United States and its attitude toward Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry posted an account of the call on its website.
Mr. Wang told Mr. Blinken that the Biden administration should also maintain contacts with the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from falling deeper into chaos. Before the Taliban seized control of Kabul earlier this month, Beijing had held talks with senior Taliban officials about the future of Afghanistan, which shares a narrow border with China.
“There has been a fundamental change in domestic developments in Afghanistan, and all sides need to engage in contacts with the Taliban,” Mr. Wang said, according to the foreign ministry’s account. “The United States, in particular, must work with the international community to provide Afghanistan with economic, public welfare and humanitarian aid, assisting the new political structure in Afghanistan in maintaining normal government operations and safeguarding social stability and public security.”
So far, the Chinese government has not specified what aid and other support it may provide Afghanistan, nor any conditions it has for recognizing a new Taliban-dominated government in Kabul. But Mr. Wang suggested that Beijing’s willingness to work alongside the Biden administration on such issues was conditional on tamping down broader tensions between the two big powers.
The United States has criticized the Chinese government over its security crackdown in Hong Kong, repression of largely Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, and warnings to Taiwan, the democratically governed island that Beijing regards as a part of China.
“Recently, China and the U.S. have opened up communication over Afghanistan, climate change and other issues,” Mr. Wang said. “China will consider how to engage with the U.S. based on U.S. attitudes toward China. If the U.S. also hopes for Chinese-U.S. relations to return to a normal track, then stop persistently maligning and attacking China and harming Chinese sovereignty, security and development interests.”
As gunfire rang out in Kabul, an Afghan college graduate named Batool tried not to show her fear.
For days, she and about 150 other Afghan women — mostly students and alumni of Asian University for Women in Bangladesh — had essentially lived on a convoy of buses that they hoped would get them into the Kabul airport, the center of the U.S. military’s last-ditch evacuation efforts.
University officials and volunteers had secured them visas and chartered a plane for them, but several times, the buses failed to make it past Taliban and military checkpoints.
Fear about being in the open intensified after a deadly terrorist attack on Thursday and a night on the buses listening to gunfire outside.
“We accepted that we will either die or we will leave,” said Batool, 25. “Every single one of us wanted to follow our dreams and continue our education.”
Finally on Saturday, with university leaders and other volunteers pleading their case to American officials, 148 women passed the final checkpoint. Told to leave their luggage behind, they were allowed to bring only their phones and phone chargers.
Their passage past that checkpoint and onto a plane capped a frantic, round-the-clock campaign by a university officials and others to get the women out after the sudden collapse of Kabul to the Taliban two weeks ago.
As the Taliban advanced, school officials quickly created a masters program so alumni could obtain student visas, said a university founder, Kamal Ahmad.
To keep track of the buses at all times in the chaotic scene around the airport, the school used a geocommunications app that was also used to help evacuate an Afghan girls robotics team.
Lawyers with the firm Mayer Brown helped the effort, according to Marcia Goodman, a partner for the firm who said they had “reached out to to contacts and friends of contacts, including military on the ground and government officials at various levels.”
But they ran into issues booking a charter plane out of Kabul, and feared paying up to $450,000 for a single flight that might fail to pick the students up.
In the desperate effort to enter the airport, overwhelming fatigue was itself a threat to the evacuation plans.
When Safa, 20, and two friends separated from the group at the airport to tell their families they had made it past the checkpoints, they fell asleep from exhaustion as their phones charged in a hall.
When they woke up an hour later, they discovered to their horror that they had missed the flight. “We were not able to say anything,” Safa said. “We were not able to cry. We were just in shock what to do.”
Eventually, military officers put them on a flight to Doha, Qatar.
Safa has decided to “never sleep again,” she joked during a telephone interview.
Leaving Afghanistan brings mixed feelings, she said,
At the evacuation’s lowest moments, she felt resigned to giving up her dream of finishing her degree and working in public health.
“It was killing me inside,” she said. “Why I should give up? Why should I bury it? I deserve to be happy. I deserve my old dreams.”
Now, she said, she intends to finish her public health degree and return one day to Afghanistan, after the Taliban have left.
“I want to serve my country,” she said. “I can see my future, and I will be able to turn my dreams in reality.”
Most of the students are now in Spain, Batool said, with the next leg of their journey to the United States. They are not sure when they will make it to Bangladesh.
Safa said she felt “grateful” to the university but was worried for the family left behind.
“I saved my life,” she said, “but still I can’t say I have a good feeling.”
The Biden administration has nearly completed a policy to govern counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional war zones, but the abrupt collapse of the Afghan government and a recent flurry of strikes in Somalia have raised new problems, according to current and former officials.
The administration has hoped to finish its playbook by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. It was envisioned as part of a broader recalibration, as President Biden seeks to wind down the “forever war” on terrorism and reorient national security policy to how the world has changed since 2001.
But his team’s ability to meet that deadline is now in doubt amid rapidly changing events and uncertainties about the future. Many of the same officials who would develop and approve an updated drone plan for Afghanistan are focused on the emergency evacuation operations in Kabul, officials said.
In January, Mr. Biden had set out to establish his own overarching policy for drone strikes targeting terrorist threats emanating from countries where the United States does not have troops on the ground. His administration viewed with suspicion President Donald J. Trump’s decision in 2017 to loosen a version of such rules that President Barack Obama had imposed in 2013.