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US completes withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan after 20 years

US President Joe Biden has set a deadline of tomorrow to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan.

Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Updated Aug 30th 2021, 10:55 PM

THE SOUND OF gunfire has been heard across Kabul as the US military has confirmed the last US troops had left Afghanistan, ending a 20-year war.

“I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Central Command Commander General Kenneth McKenzie said.

The final flight left at 7.29pm Irish time today – just before the start of Tuesday in Kabul.

The flight, a large C-17 military transport, took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport one minute before midnight Kabul time, McKenzie said.

The final flight took place under heavy security following two attacks on the two-week evacuation operation by Islamic State-Khorasan – one a suicide bombing that left more than 100 people dead, including 13 US troops.

McKenzie said the Taliban had been “very helpful and useful” in conducting the evacuation and the final flights, despite the deep enmity between the two sides.

The commander of American military forces on the ground in Afghanistan and the US ambassador were the last to board the final evacuation flight from Kabul on Monday, he said.

“On the last airplane out was General Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and my ground force commander there,” McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon. “And he was accompanied by Ambassador Ross Wilson.”

McKenzie said they were the last on the ground at Kabul airport as the United States completed its military withdrawal from Afghanistan. “The State and Defense team were, in fact, the last people to step on the airplane.”

The final withdrawal of forces meant the military could not evacuate all the people that it had hoped to, he said.

“We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.”

US President Joe Biden is due to make an address tomorrow on the decision “not to extend our presence in Afghanistan”.

Celebratory gunfire rang out in Kabul in the early hours of the morning to mark the moment, which came after the fraught final days of a frantic mission to evacuate tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans who had helped the US-led war effort.

A senior Taliban official said tonight that the Taliban had “made history”.

“We made history again. The 20-year occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and NATO ended tonight,” said Anas Haqqani, a senior official in the hardline Islamist movement, in a tweet.

“I am very happy that after 20 years of jihad, sacrifices & hardships I have this pride to see these historic moments.”

Longest military conflict

The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan marks the end of the country’s longest military conflict, which began in retaliation for the 11 September attacks.

The evacuation mission began over a fortnight ago in response to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul on 15 August. Since then, over 122,000 people have been flown out of the country, including over 5,400 Americans.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby called the evacuations “the largest airlift ever conducted in US history”.

US Army commanders had been in contact with the Taliban to ensure the remaining flights were to be carried out as planned.

Kirby stated at a press conference today, “We have been in communication with the Taliban about these final days so there is no misunderstanding”.

Concerns about the security of Kabul airport had remained a grave concern. However, Kirby noted that “The airport will remain operational throughout the final flights” as the US evacuates the last of its troops from Afghanistan.

The troop withdrawal deal struck between the Taliban and Washington last year has drawn criticism from rival terror group, Islamic State.

The evacuation deadline of Tuesday, 31 August comes as the Taliban has assured over 90 countries, including Ireland that anyone wishing to leave Afghanistan after today’s deadline will be allowed to do so.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said there are 60 Irish citizens or family members across Afghanistan; and that there are at least 15 Afghans with Irish residency.

British troops have already left Afghanistan and approximately 15,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan by UK troops over the course of nearly two weeks in Operation Pitting. The operation is believed to be the largest evacuation mission since the Second World War.

Chaos in Kabul

The regional Islamic State-Khorasan group, rivals of the Taliban, posed the biggest threat to the withdrawal.

A terrorist attack outside Kabul airport on Thursday 26 August killed over 100 including 13 members of the US forces. The suicide bombing claimed by ISIS-K caused horrific scenes outside the airport and led to significant disruption of flights.

Today, the group carried out a rocket attack on Kabul airport. A Taliban official said the attack was intercepted by the airport’s missile defence systems.

The White House confirmed that there had been a rocket directed at the airport, but said airlift operations there were “uninterrupted”.

Meanwhile, US forces said they had carried out an air strike last night in Kabul. There are concerns of civilian casualties due to the drone strike as relatives of the family said that 10 people had been killed including six children.

In response to criticism regarding the death of civilians, Kirby said today, “No military on the face of the Earth works harder to avoid civilian casualties than the US military”.

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Taliban leadership

The Taliban leadership have promised a softened brand of rule compared with their first stint in power, which was ended by the US military because the group gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda.

Many Afghans fear a return to the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law, as well as violent retribution for working with foreign militaries, Western missions or the previous US-backed government.

Such fear came as reports of targeted killings in areas of extensive Taliban control emerged earlier this month. Thousands of citizens fear reprisals and western allies have warned that many of those deemed at-risk have not been able to get on evacuation flights. 

Human rights concerns

There are serious concerns regarding the human rights of millions of Afghans as uncertainties regarding the supply of aid into the country emerge.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic alongside security concerns, exponentially rising food costs and drought puts the lives of millions of Afghan citizens at risk of malnutrition. UNICEF predicts that one million children under the age of five will suffer from severe acute malnutrition if current trends continue.

Over four million children, including 2.2 million girls are estimated to be missing school.

In a press statement UNICEF Regional Director, George Laryea-Adjei said, “Around 300,000 children have been forced out of their homes, some in their pyjamas as they slept, some while they sat quietly reading school books”.

“Too many of them have witnessed scenes that no child should ever see.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has also expressed “grave concern” for human rights abuses in Afghanistan and called for full respect for the human rights of all citizens in the country, including women, children and those belonging to ethnic, religious and other minority groups.

With reporting from AFP and PA

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