WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Monday said it had completed the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan in a chaotic airlift nearly 20 years after it invaded the country in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
More than 122,000 people have been flown out of Kabul since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban – which harbored the al Qaeda militant group blamed for the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington – regained control of the country.
Having failed to anticipate the Taliban would prevail so quickly, Washington and its NATO allies were forced into a hasty exit, leaving behind thousands of Afghans who helped them and may have qualified for evacuation and others who feel at risk.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” Marine General Frank McKenzie, the head of the U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon news briefing.
“But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out,” McKenzie said, adding that the chief U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last C-17 flight out.
The emergency air evacuation came to an end before a Tuesday deadline set by U.S. President Joe Biden, who inherited a troop withdrawal deal made with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump and decided to complete the pullout.
The United States and its Western allies scrambled to save citizens of their own countries as well as translators, local embassy staff, civil rights activists, journalists and other Afghans vulnerable to reprisals.
The evacuations became even more perilous when a suicide bomb attack claimed by Islamic State – enemy of both the West and the Taliban – killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghans waiting by the airport gates on Thursday.
Biden, who faced intense criticism at home and abroad over his decisions, promised after the bloody Kabul airport attack to hunt down the people responsible.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Howard Goller)