Afghanistan latest: US finishes withdrawal, meeting Aug. 31 deadline after 20 years of war – USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The last plane carrying U.S. forces left Afghanistan on Monday, meeting an  Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw U.S. forces from the Taliban-led nation, after 20 years of war that left nearly 2,500 American troops dead and spanned four presidencies. 

The Biden administration has spent weeks scrambling to evacuate Americans and Afghan translators who helped the American military after the Taliban quickly gained control of Kabul on Aug. 15.  

The withdrawal also comes in the aftermath of an ISIS-K suicide bombing that killed dozens of people, including 13 U.S. service members, on Aug. 26. The U.S. retaliated with airstrikes targeting Islamic extremists on Friday and Sunday. 

Evacuations originally began in July with at least 122,000 people evacuated out of Afghanistan as of Monday, including 5,400 Americans. 

–Mabinty Quarshie

More: With last plane out of Kabul, America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan is over

Likely ‘very low hundreds’ of Americans left

In announcing the completion of the evacuation and war effort. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 p.m. Washington time, or one minute before midnight in Kabul. He said a number of American citizens, likely numbering in “the very low hundreds,” were left behind, and that he believes they will still be able to leave the country.

–The Associated Press

‘We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out’

It’s not clear who or how many people were on the final flight out of the airport in Kabul. 

“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” McKenzie said. “But I think if we stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out that we wanted.”

The final flights for the American retreat, with the deadline of Tuesday, would have had room for a few civilians, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Some equipment used to protect the retreat would have had to be abandoned.

Aircraft, including Apache attack helicopters, would likely have to be destroyed by an air strike, according to a Defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Radios and other sensitive equipment would be burned up by incendiary hand grenades that can cut through steel.

The collapse of the U.S.-supported Afghan government on Aug. 14 stunned the Pentagon and White House. They had planned to guard the U.S. embassy and airport with about 600 troops. But the Taliban’s onslaught, which toppled provincial governments over the summer with relatively few shots fired by Afghan security forces, left Kabul surrounded.

–Joey Garrison

Watch: Pentagon confirms final U.S. military plane has left Afghanistan

The Taliban and the US withdrawal

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said Monday that the Taliban was “very helpful” as the United States closed down operations in Afghanistan.

When asked about the role the Taliban played from a security perspective, McKenzie said that the Taliban helped establish “a front perimeter outside of the airfield to prevent people from coming on the airfield during our departure.” He said the Taliban, however, did not have “direct knowledge of our time of departure.”

“We chose to keep that very information very restricted,” McKenzie said. “But they were actually very helpful and useful to us as we closed down operations.”

–Rebecca Morin

Taliban will ‘have their hands full with ISIS-K’

McKenzie estimated there are 2,000 “hardcore ISIS fighters in Afghanistan now,” many of whom were released from prisons by the Taliban but who will now pose a threat to the Taliban’s rule.

“I do believe the Taliban is going to have their hands full with ISIS-K,” he added.

Asked about his personal reflections on the war’s end, he said, “It was very very conflicted actually but … I was pretty much focused on the task at hand. I’ll have days ahead to actually think about that.

–Deirdre Shesgreen and Joey Garrison

Withdrawal complete, diplomatic mission continues

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. said the withdrawal signified “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 9/11.

“While the voluntary evacuation is complete, the diplomatic mission to ensure additional US citizens and eligible Afghans who want to leave continues. ”  

–Joey Garrison

Psaki on U.S. troop withdrawal: “This is exactly what government is supposed to do.”

The White House continues to monitor the final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan with only hours left before the Aug. 31 deadline for full withdrawal arrives. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden would be speaking in the coming days about America’s withdrawal.

Since Aug. 14, the U.S. has evacuated 122,000 people from the country, including 6,000 Americans, Psaki said Monday. The State Department believes there are about 300 Americans left in the country, according to the White House.

On the U.S. troop withdrawal, Psaki said “this is exactly what government is supposed to do,” noting that the effort was currently the largest airlift in history.

Psaki declined to answer when asked whether Afghanistan was a safer country than when the U.S. first invaded while noting that the administration remains vigilant against terrorism.

She also noted that Biden “has reconfirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize doing whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground.” The president’s directive comes after a deadly attack on the airport claimed the lives of 13 Americans and hundreds of Afghans.

The U.S. has since responded with two drone strikes against ISIS-K/ targets. At least one of the those strikes killed multiple children, according to the Washington Post and CNN.

“The president stands by his decision to bring our men and women home from Afghanistan. We would have sent thousands of troops in harm’s way to fight a war that Afghans weren’t willing to fight in to preserve their government,” Psaki said during a Monday press briefing.

–Matthew Brown

Aug. 31 deadline is down to hours

As of 3:30 p.m. EDT, the American military is down to its last day in Afghanistan before it runs up against a withdrawal deadline.

Biden administration officials repeatedly have said the U.S. will will fully leave the country by Aug. 31.

“Obviously we are reaching the end of our prescribed mission,” Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters on Monday. Final details of the American withdrawal from the country are being concealed due to security concerns.

Since the withdrawal began, the military has evacuated around 122,000 people from the country, including 5,400 Americans. Most people evacuated through American flights are being ferried through U.S. military bases in the Middle East and Europe, especially in Qatar in Germany.

– Matthew Brown

More: 24 hours to go: It is now Aug. 31 in Afghanistan, but there are few details about how America’s longest war will end

Marine relieved of duties after critical social media post

JACKSONVILLE, NC – A Marine who spoke out against senior military and civilian leaders about Afghanistan has been relieved of his duties.

Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller posted a video to Facebook on Thursday, “demanding accountability, integrity, and honesty from senior leaders in the Marine Corps” after 13 U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul. 

“People are upset because their senior leaders let them down and no one is raising their hands and accepting accountability, saying we messed this up,” he said in the video. “Did any of you throw your rank on the table and say, hey, it’s a bad idea to evacuate Bagram Airfield, a strategic airbase, before we evacuate everyone? Did anyone do that,”

A veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Scheller was recently assigned to the School of Infantry East, Advanced Infantry Training Battalion, as the commanding office aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in June, according to his bio. 

After 17 years of service, Scheller closed the video out by saying he is willing to throw it all away to demand accountability.

On Friday, Scheller made a separate post to Facebook stating as of 2:30 p.m. he was relieved of his duties. He has declined comment to all media until his official exit from the military. 

Base officials confirmed the news, adding Scheller was relieved of command by Col. David Emmel, commanding officer of School of Infantry-East, due to a loss of trust and confidence in his ability to command.

“This is obviously an emotional time for a lot of Marines, and we encourage anyone struggling right now to seek counseling or talk to a fellow Marine. There is a forum in which Marine leaders can address their disagreements with the chain of command, but it’s not social media,” said Marine Corps spokesperson Maj Jim Stenger.

– Trevor Dunnell, Jacksonville Daily News

Pentagon vague on final evacuation plans

Nearing its last day of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has been unspecific on how the military will fully wind down its mission in the country.  

“We continue to have the capability to evacuate and fly out those until the very end,” said Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor during a briefing at the Pentagon.

Noting the high level of danger, neither Taylor nor Pentagon press secretary John Kirby would provide details, or even answers, to some reporter questions on the evacuation operation or the current state of play in Afghanistan. 

Taylor added that since evacuations began in July, about 122,000 people have been evacuated out of Afghanistan as of Monday, including 5,400 Americans. In total, 28 flights left Kabul’s international airport in the last 24 hours.  

The Pentagon reported there are now 3,700 passengers are traveling to the U.S. via 11 flights to Dulles International Airport near Washington and via six flights to Philadelphia International Airport.

Kirby referred reporters to the State Department when asked about the number of Americans who may still be on the ground and trying to leave the country.  

The military is further using “a number of intermediate staging bases” to move thousands of evacuees through military bases in the Middle East and Europe to the U.S.

Exactly how and when troops finally withdraw from the country, however, was left unclear. Pentagon officials also did not go into great detail on the security situation at the airport, only noting that it is secure for the time being.  

“We are operating on the assumption that we need to be prepared for future potential threats,” Taylor said, confirming that the airport was attacked by five missiles on Sunday, though there were no casualties. Three missiles missed the airport, one failed to hit any important targets or people, and another was intercepted by a U.S. defense system.

“The threat stream is still real. It is still active. And in many cases, it’s still specific,” Taylor continued.

– Matthew Brown

Islamic State claims Kabul rocket attacks

CAIRO — The Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan has claimed responsibility for Monday’s rocket attack in Kabul, saying it fired at least six Katyusha rockets at the airport in the Afghan capital.

The rockets stuck a neighborhood close to the Kabul airport. The claim of responsibility was carried by the militant group’s media arm, the Aamaq news agency. It didn’t provide further details.

The U.S. military said five rockets targeted the airport on Monday morning and that U.S. forces on the airfield used a defensive system to intercept them.

– Associated Press

Evacuations top 116K since Aug. 14

The U.S. military evacuated about 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul on Aug. 26, bringing the total number of people evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14 to be around 116,700 people, per the White House.

Another 50 people were evacuated on two allied coalition flights. The U.S. conducted 26 flights yesterday to ferry evacuees out of the country. Since late July, around 122,300 people have been evacuated.

The latest numbers, lower than in previous days, underscore that evacuations in Kabul are winding down as U.S. forces face an Aug. 31 troop withdrawal deadline. Many allied forces ended their evacuation efforts last week, claiming that their operations could not function without U.S. security assurances.

– Matthew Brown

U.S. will be able to evacuate remaining Americans

The United States has the capacity to evacuate the approximately 300 U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan who want to leave before Tuesday’s deadline, senior Biden administration officials said, as rocket fire in Kabul and another U.S. drone strike against suspected Islamic State militants underscored the grave threat in the war’s final days.

The steady stream of U.S. military jets taking off and landing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan’s capital continued Monday even after rocket fire targeted the airport. No one claimed responsibility for the rockets, which hit a nearby neighborhood.

– Associated Press

Drone strike may have killed civilians

A United States drone strike targeting ISIS-K bombers in Afghanistan on Sunday may have also killed civilians.

“We are aware of reports of civilian casualties following our strike on a vehicle in Kabul today,” said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, on Sunday.

At least one of the occupants of the vehicle was believed to be a suicide bomber, according to a U.S. official. The Pentagon confirmed the drone strike Sunday, saying it was against an “imminent ISIS-K threat” to the airport in Kabul.

“We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties,” Urban said. “It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further.”

At a Monday press briefing, officials said the incident is being investigated.

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The U.S. Embassy in Kabul had warned of a “specific credible threat” and urged those hoping to evacuate to leave the airport. President Joe Biden said Saturday the Kabul airport was “highly likely” to be the target of another attack before the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.

A blast at the airport on Thursday killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 169 Afghans. A retaliatory U.S. drone strike on Friday killed two ISIS-K members.

Biden administration taps former acting FEMA head to lead resettlement efforts of Afghan refugees

Former Acting FEMA Administrator Robert Fenton, Jr. will lead the Biden administration’s effort to resettle refugees from Afghanistan, the Department of Homeland Security announced Sunday.

Fenton, who will report directly to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, will lead a broad range of operations to resettle Afghans, including immigration processing, COVID-19 testing and isolation and securing permanent homes for refugees who are neither American citizens nor permanent residents, DHS said.

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“Bob has dedicated his career to public service and has decades of experience managing complex and critically important missions. He will help lead this interagency effort with incredible adeptness and the highest standards of honor and integrity,” Mayorkas said in a statement.

Fenton has a long history of responding to national disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, wildfires in California and the 9/11 terrorist attack. He was acting FEMA administrator during the presidential transition periods in 2017 and 2021.

– Kristine Phillips

About 300 Americans still waiting to leave Afghanistan, Blinken says

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the United States is doing “everything possible” to get out about 300 American citizens who indicated they want to leave Afghanistan by the Aug. 31 deadline.

“We are very actively working to help them get to the airport, get on a plane, and get out of Afghanistan,” Blinken said during an interview on ABC’S “This Week.”

The White House said Sunday that about 2,900 people were evacuated from Kabul in the last 24 hours that ended at 3 a.m. Sunday. Since Aug. 14, about 114,400 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan.

– Rebecca Morin

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