WASHINGTON (Associated Press) – When the last five US military transport planes took off from Afghanistan on Monday, they were left behind …
WASHINGTON (Associated Press) – With the last five US military transport planes taking off from Afghanistan on Monday, they left up to 200 Americans and thousands of desperate Afghans who could not get out and must now rely on the Taliban to allow their departure.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the United States will continue to try to get Americans and Afghans out of the country, and will work with Afghanistan’s neighbors to secure their departure either by land or by charter plane once Kabul airport reopens.
“We have no illusion that any of this is going to be easy or fast,” Blinken said, adding that the total number of Americans in Afghanistan who still want to leave could be closer to 100.
Speaking shortly after the Pentagon announced the completion of the US military withdrawal on Monday, Blinken said the US embassy in Kabul will remain closed and vacant for the foreseeable future. He said that the headquarters of the American diplomats will be in Doha, Qatar.
Blinken said in a letter from the State Department: “We will continue our determined efforts to help Americans, foreigners and Afghans to leave Afghanistan if they want to do so.” “Our commitment to them does not carry a deadline.”
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told reporters that the US military had managed to get up to 1,500 Afghans out in the final hours of the US evacuation mission. But now it will be up to the State Department to work with the Taliban to get more people out.
McKenzie said there were no longer any citizens stranded at the airport and none of them had been on recent military flights. He said the US military maintained the ability to get the Americans out straight until just before the end, but “none of them made it to the airport.”
“There is a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” McKenzie said. “We didn’t take out everyone we wanted out. But I think if we stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t get everyone we wanted out.”
McKenzie and other officials painted a vivid picture of the final hours that U.S. forces were on the ground, and the preparations they made to ensure that Taliban and Islamic State fighters did not operate U.S. military weapons systems and other equipment.
The terrorist threat remains a major problem in Afghanistan, with at least 2,000 “solid” members of the Islamic State still in the country, including many who were released from prisons with the Taliban in control.
Emphasizing the persistent security threats, officials said, the weapons systems used only hours earlier to counter ISIS missiles fired at the airport remained operational until “the last minute” with the last US military aircraft taking off. One of the last things the US forces did was render the so-called C-RAMS (anti-missile, artillery and mortar) inoperable.
McKenzie said they have “disarmed” the system so that it cannot be used again. Officials said the forces did not blow up the equipment in order to ensure it was left operational for future flights, once it could start again. In addition, McKenzie said the US has also disabled 27 Humvees and 73 aircraft so that they cannot be used again.
Throughout the day, as the last C-17 transport planes prepared to take off, McKenzie said the United States had kept “overwhelming US air power” to deal with potential ISIS threats.
Back at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, watched the final 90 minutes of the Army’s departure in real time from a basement operations center.
According to a US official, they sat in quiet silence while watching soldiers do a last-minute runway check, get key defense systems down and board C-17s. The official said you could hear the pin drop as the last plane took off, and the commanders around the room sighed with relief. Later, Austin telephoned Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, who was coordinating the evacuation. Donahoe and the acting US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, were the last to board the last plane that left Kabul.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details of the military operations.
“Simply because we left, that doesn’t mean opportunities for both Americans who are in Afghanistan who want to leave and Afghans who want to leave, they will not be denied that opportunity,” McKenzie said.
The military left some equipment to the Taliban to operate the airport, including two fire trucks, some front loading cranes, and aircraft ramps.
Blinken said the United States would work with Turkey and Qatar to help them get the Kabul airport running again.
“This will enable a small number of daily charter flights, a key for anyone wanting to depart from Afghanistan moving forward,” he said.
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