US ends Afghan war, its longest in history

Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that the US would continue its involvement with Afghanistan—but as a diplomatic effort, based in Qatar.
Celebratory gunfire light up part of the night sky after the last US aircraft took off from the airport in Kabul early on August 31, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Celebratory gunfire light up part of the night sky after the last US aircraft took off from the airport in Kabul early on August 31, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Late on Monday afternoon, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of CENTCOM, announced that the last US forces had departed Afghanistan at 11:59 PM on August 30 local time—just as the US deadline came into effect.

The 20-year long war in Afghanistan—the longest in US history—has come to an end. Some 2,400 US soldiers died in those two decades, while over 20,000 were wounded. In those years, the US spent some $822 billion there.

After McKenzie spoke, Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that the US would continue its involvement with Afghanistan—but as a diplomatic effort, based in Qatar.

Unanticipated Collapse of Afghan Government

The end of the Afghan war has been anticipated since mid-April, when President Joe Biden first announced that he would begin the withdrawal of US forces, in accord with the agreement that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had reached with Taliban representatives in Qatar in February 2020.

Still, the way the war’s end has been handled—with the chaos at Kabul airport and the consequent botched evacuations—has come as a surprise. One factor that contributed significantly to the dismal situation was the panic of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country even before the Taliban reached Kabul, along with his wife and top aides. His senior ministers, including the Defense Minister and the head of Afghan intelligence, followed close behind.

The Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, in reassuring Kurds and explaining why Kurdistan was different from Afghanistan, affirmed, “We are a nation with a will and a cause.” Both, by implication, had been sorely lacking in the Afghan government.

As McKenzie told journalists on Monday, “When the evacuation” of civilians was formally directed on August 14, we began to carry out our plan based on the initial assumption that the Afghan security forces would be a willing and able security partner in Kabul, defending the capital for a matter of weeks or at least for a few days.”

However, as McKenzie continued, the Afghan military collapsed “within 24 hours,” thereby, “completely opening Kabul up to the Taliban advance” on the following day.

The CENTCOM commander revealed that he had met with Taliban representatives in Qatar, before the evacuation began. “I delivered a message on behalf of the president,” he said, “that our mission in Kabul was now the evacuation of Americans and our partners” and “we would forcefully defend our evacuees, if necessary.”

“The Taliban’s response,” McKenzie continued, “was in line with what they’ve said publicly.” They did state their “intent to enter and occupy Kabul,” but they “also offered to work with us on a deconfliction mechanism” to prevent mishaps, as Taliban and US forces worked in close proximity. They also “promised not to interfere with our evacuation.”

McKenzie had high praise for Norway, which maintained a hospital at Kabul airport, even as the evacuation of US and other NATO forces proceeded. Those wounded on Thursday in ISIS-K’s brutal attack on a gate outside the airport received immediate, emergency treatment at the Norwegian hospital, and “even after the attack, they agreed to extend the presence of their hospital to provide more coverage for us,” he said.

Threat of ISIS-Khorasan

Khorasan is a pre-Islamic Persian word that was retained by its Muslim conquerors. It refers to northeast Iran, western Afghanistan, and southern regions of Central Asia.

ISIS-K remains a vague and ill-defined threat, with little reliable information, at least in the public domain, about its leadership; its rank-and-file; or its relationship to the original ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

McKenzie repeatedly referred to the dangers that are still posed by ISIS-K. “We know that ISIS-K has worked very, very hard to strike us,” McKenzie said, and it continues to do so.

Although the Taliban and ISIS-K appear to be bitter enemies, the ranks of ISIS-K have been swollen by the Taliban, because, as the Taliban captured city after Afghan city, they released prisoners in the jails, a significant number of which were ISIS-K members.

McKenzie estimated the current strength of ISIS-K as 2,000 fighters, suggesting that number “is probably as high as it’s ever been in quite a while,” adding, “that’s going to be a challenge for the Taliban,” and “now they’re going to be able to reap what they have sown.”

The commander stressed that “the military phase” of the US intervention in Afghanistan “had ended,” and the State Department “will now take the lead.”

Secretary of State on Next Phase

Several hours after McKenzie’s press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a video address that outlined the next phase for the US regarding Afghanistan.

“Now, US military flights have ended, and our troops have departed,” Blinken stated. “A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun,” he continued, “which we will lead with our diplomacy.”

Blinken then outlined the basic contours of that diplomacy.

US diplomatic operations have been transferred from Kabul to Qatar, and Ian McCary, who had been deputy chief of mission in Kabul, will head the US mission in Qatar.

Evacuations from Afghanistan will continue, Blinken stated, and “we will hold the Taliban to their commitment on freedom of movement for foreign nationals, visa holders, and at-risk Afghans.”

Qatar and Turkey will be involved in re-opening the civilian part of the Kabul airport, and there will be “a small number of daily charter flights” out of the country.

The US focus will be on counter-terrorism, rather than trying to establish a new government.

“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 Qaida and the Taliban’s sworn enemy, ISIS-K,” Blinken stated. “We will hold them accountable to that commitment.”

In addition, the US will maintain counterterrorism capabilities in the region, similar to those used in the past few days to strike “ISIS facilitators and imminent threats in Afghanistan,” he said.

“Any engagement with a Taliban-led government,” Blinken affirmed, “will be driven” solely by “our vital national interests.”

Blinken then listed the conditions under which the Taliban could secure the “international legitimacy and support,” which he said they seek.

They must meet their “commitment and obligations” on “freedom of travel; respecting the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women and minorities; upholding [their] commitments on counterterrorism; not carrying out reprisal violence against those who choose to stay in Afghanistan; and forming an inclusive government that can meet the needs and reflect the aspirations of the Afghan people.”

Blinken also affirmed that the US humanitarian mission in Afghanistan would continue, although US aid would be channeled through UN agencies and NGOs, rather than the Taliban.

Joe Biden is to address the American people on Tuesday regarding the end of the Afghan war.