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U.S. Forces Complete Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Ending 20-Year War Effort

The U.S. military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August, marking the end of the United States’ longest war and a new era for the nation now under Taliban control.

“Congratulations to Afghanistan…this victory belongs to us all,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid from the runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport. “America was defeated, they could not achieve their targets through military operations.”

The last U.S. C-17 military cargo aircraft took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on 30 August 3:29 p.m. (ET), ending the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third-country nationals, and vulnerable Afghans, said U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, in a statement.

“Afghanistan is finally free,” Taliban official Hekmatuallah Wasiq told the AP in an interview. “Everything is peaceful. Everything is safe.” 

Citizens, however, are waiting to see how the Taliban will govern the nation following the collapse of the Afghan government and the U.S. withdrawal. The nation of 38 million people is facing severe economic challenges, along with a major drought that threatens its food supply.

“A long-running economic crisis has worsened since the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country in mid-August, with people crowding banks to maximize their daily withdrawal limit of about $200,” the AP reports. “Civil servants haven’t been paid in months and the local currency is losing value. Most of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves are held abroad and currently frozen.”

Taliban officials have engaged in talks with representatives from the Afghan government to create an interim government structure, but The Washington Post reports that the conversations have been awkward. 

“Senior Taliban leaders, cognizant of their need for international aid and support, if not full recognition, insist that they have changed since their repressive five-year rule in the 1990s, pledging not to persecute civilians or confine women to their homes,” according to the Post. “But the group’s tough young fighters, suddenly assigned to patrol the capital as deputized police, have beaten people trying to reach the airport. Worse abuses have been reported in the countryside. And Taliban leaders have barred most women from work and school, though explaining that this is because their underlings have not been taught how to behave ‘kindly’ with them.”

Human rights activists have expressed deep concerns about the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, including Malala Yousafzai, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt while on her way to school. 

“Some members of the Taliban say they will not deny women and girls education or the right to work,” Yousafzai wrote in an opinion essay earlier in August. “But given the Taliban’s history of violently suppressing women’s rights, Afghan women’s fears are real. Already, we are hearing reports of female students being turned away from their universities, female workers from their offices.”

The United States and its allies are now transitioning their efforts to focus on a diplomatic mission to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a refuge for terrorists, said U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in a speech. 

“The Taliban has made a commitment to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s sworn enemy, ISIS-K,” Blinken said. “But while we have expectations of the Taliban, that doesn’t mean we will rely on the Taliban. We will remain vigilant in monitoring threats ourselves and will maintain robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region to neutralize those threats if necessary, as we demonstrated in the past few days by striking ISIS facilitators and imminent threats in Afghanistan—and as we do in places around the world where we do not have military forces on the ground.”

The U.S. coalition evacuated more than 123,000 civilians from Afghanistan between 14 August and 31 August in the largest non-combatant evacuation operation ever conducted by the U.S. military, McKenzie explained.

Some U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans remain in the country, and only some of the U.S. military equipment at the airport was demilitarized before the withdrawal, McKenzie said in a press conference. 

There are also concerns that the Taliban has gained access to biometric data and sensitive personal information through Afghan government databases that could be used to identify individuals in the country—including the Afghan Personnel and Pay System (APPS), analysis by MIT Technology Review found. 

“Started in 2016 to cut down on paycheck fraud involving fake identities, or ‘ghost soldiers,’ APPS contains some half a million records about every member of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, according to estimates by individuals familiar with the program,” MIT Technology Review reports. “The data is collected ‘from the day they enlisted,’ says one individual who worked on the system, and remains in the system forever, whether or not someone remains actively in service. Records could be updated, he added, but there was no deletion or data retention policy—not even in contingency situations such as a Taliban takeover.”

The United States deployed troops to Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks, which al Qaeda leaders planned from their base in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies initially focused on overthrowing the Taliban’s control of the country, followed by rebuilding Afghanistan’s institutions and protecting the population from future Taliban attacks by building up Afghanistan’s army and police forces.

During the 20-year war, between 171,000 and 174,000 people were killed—including 47,245 civilians, 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan military and police personnel, 2,442 U.S. military personnel, and 1,144 allied troops, according to the Costs of War Project from Brown University. The war efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan also cost the United States $2.31 trillion—not including funds that the U.S. government will spend on lifetime care for American veterans or future interest payments on borrowed money to fund the war.