America’s longest war came to an end just before midnight local time in Afghanistan, when the last evacuation flight flew out of Kabul airport.
A C-17 military transport plane took off carrying the US commander who oversaw the evacuation operation, Maj Gen Christopher Donahue of the 82nd Airborne Division, and the acting US ambassador, Ross Wilson, who were the last two Americans to step off the tarmac in Kabul, minutes before the 31 August deadline.
It brought to an end a US presence that lasted nearly 20 years, beginning just a few weeks after the September 11 attacks. The US gave up its last toehold in Kabul to the guerrilla group it ousted with initial ease in 2001, marking a defeat on the scale of Vietnam.
There was no fanfare or ceremony, and no handing over of flags to Kabul’s new masters. All remaining armoured vehicles and other military equipment items were destroyed or rendered useless and the Taliban were notified of the last flight.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said later “a new chapter has begun”, with the military operation over and a diplomatic mission just starting. US diplomatic operations have now been moved from Kabul to Qatar, he said.
More than 100 Americans remain in Afghanistan who wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights, he said, but that the State Department would keep working to get them out.
He reiterated a pledge to hold the Taliban to their commitments to let people leave the country and said it was time to “learn lessons” from the US’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan.
The head of US Central Command, Gen Kenneth McKenzie, announced the historic moment of departure, appearing on a videolink to the Pentagon, just as the last flight was clearing Afghan airspace.
“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 September 11, 2001,” he said.
“The cost was 2,461 US service members and civilians killed and more than 20,000 who were injured.”
He noted that total included 13 US service members killed on Thursday after an attack by the regional IS affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), at one of the airport gates.
“Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended,” Joe Biden said in a written statement, hailing the “unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve” of the US troops who carried out the historic airlift.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said Afghans now “face a moment of decision and opportunity. Their country’s future is in their hands. They will choose their path in full sovereignty. This is the chance to bring their war to an end as well.”
In Kabul, Taliban fighters marked the departure of the last US transport plane with salvoes of celebratory gunfire.
“At 12 o’clock tonight, the last American troops left Kabul airport, on which account Afghanistan was completely liberated and independent,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the movement’s spokesman, declared.
Nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians and 70,000 Afghan soldiers and police are estimated to have died in the violence since 2001.
And with the Taliban asserting its control around the country, ISKP increasingly active and the US vowing to continue airstrikes against them, it seemed certain that the last American flight out will not mean the end of the daily violence faced by Afghans.
McKenzie estimated there were 2,000 “hardcore” IS fighters on the ground in Afghanistan, plus those that had been let out of prison by the Taliban in recent days.
“That’s going to be a challenge for the Taliban, I believe, in the days ahead,” the general said.
In the last 24 hours of the US presence, about 1,000 Afghans were evacuated who had worked for or with the US, bringing the total civilian evacuation carried out this month to 123,000. Of that total, 79,000 were flown out by the US military, including 6,000 US nationals.
It was the biggest noncombatant evacuation in US military history. McKenzie called it a “monumental achievement”, noting it included three helicopter extractions of 185 stranded Americans and 21 Germans.
On top of that, special forces brought 2,017 vulnerable Afghans, 1,064 American citizens and 127 nationals from third countries to the airport by road.
There were no evacuees left behind on the tarmac but McKenzie admitted: “There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.” He said that would now be the task of the diplomats.
“I have asked the secretary of state to lead the continued coordination with our international partners to ensure safe passage for any Americans, Afghan partners and foreign nationals who want to leave Afghanistan,” Biden said in his statement.
“The Taliban has made commitments on safe passage and the world will hold them to their commitments.”
Biden said he hoped the diplomatic work would build on a watered down UN security council resolution passed earlier on Monday, which said it “expects” the Taliban to honour a commitment to allow Afghans to leave the country and “requests” that Kabul airport be securely reopened.
It fell far short of demanding a UN-sponsored safe zone in the Afghan capital, that France, the UK and Germany had proposed.
The final evacuation came as the Pentagon announced an investigation into reports of civilian casualties from a drone strike in Kabul, saying it was “not in a position to dispute” accounts of nine people from one family being killed, including seven children, in a drone strike on Sunday.
The attack happened on the same Kabul street where the extended family lived, adding to the bloodshed and chaos of the last days of the US military presence. Among the dead were three children aged two, two children aged three and two older children.
Reports from Kabul suggested some of the children had run out to greet one of the adults killed, an NGO worker, as he returned home.
A relative of the victims, Ramin Yousufi, told the BBC that the youngest victim was two-year-old Sumaya, and the oldest child was Farzad, 12.
“It’s wrong, it’s a brutal attack, and it’s happened based on wrong information,” he told the broadcaster. “Why have they killed our family? Our children? They are so burnt out we cannot identify their bodies, their faces.”
Another relative said the family had applied for evacuation to the US and were waiting to be called to Kabul airport.
US military officials continued to insist that the strike hit an IS car bomb, pointing to “secondary explosions” at the scene. That conflicted with reports from Kabul that the targeted vehicle belonged to a civilian and that children were in it when it was struck by a missile from a US drone.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, announced an investigation, adding: “We take steps to avoid civilian casualties in every scenario, probably more than almost any country in the world.”
The political pressure on the Biden administration over the withdrawal mounted further on Monday with the leak of notes from conversations among top Pentagon officials, in which the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, issued orders to prepare for “a mass casualty event” 24 hours before Thursday’s suicide attack on the airport.
However, the Abbey gate at Kabul airport was kept open to allow UK soldiers and officials to evacuate people from the nearby Baron hotel.
Kabul airport came under rocket attack on Monday but there were no reported casualties. Answering questions about the civilian deaths from the drone strikes, Kirby said: “We are not in a position to dispute it right now, and we’re assessing, and we’re investigating.
“Nobody wants to see innocent life taken. We take it very, very seriously, and when we know we have caused innocent life to be lost in the conduct of our operations, we’re transparent about it.”
Maj Gen Hank Taylor said the target was believed to have been a car bomb sent by ISKP.
“Significant secondary explosions from the targeted vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material,” he said. Kirby said decisions on whether or not to carry out a drone strike had to be taken very quickly because of the nature of the ISKP threat.
Britain ended its evacuation on Saturday and France on Friday, although the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has proposed a “safe zone” in Kabul to allow allies “to maintain pressure on the Taliban” while more of the thousands of Afghans who helped western countries try to leave.
British troops and international allies could return to Kabul airport to help police a UN safe zone in the capital in order to allow safe passage for people trying to leave Afghanistan.
Defence sources in the UK indicated the idea was one of several options under consideration to ensure safe evacuation routes for the thousands of people still trapped in Afghanistan while eligible for resettlement in the west.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, head of the Royal Air Force, told The Daily Telegraph: “We’ve got to be able to play a global role in the global coalition to defeat [Isis] – whether it’s strike or whether it’s moving troops or equipment into a particular country at scale and at speed.”
As the US force prepared to withdraw under fire, with more ISKP attacks deemed imminent, Kirby said: “We are in a particularly dangerous time.” A Taliban spokesman told Agence-France Presse the group expected IS’s attacks to end once foreign forces left.
An unidentified Taliban source told Al Jazeera the group would take “full control” of Kabul airport straight after the US withdrawal ended.
The Taliban have promised a softer brand of rule compared with their first stint in power.
But many Afghans fear a repeat of the movement’s brutal interpretation of Islamic law, as well as violent retribution for working with foreign militaries, western missions or the previous US-backed government.