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Pentagon: Afghanistan evacuation completed, officially ending 20-year war

By Darryl Coote & Don Jacobson
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Pentagon: Afghanistan evacuation completed, officially ending 20-year war
U.S. Marines provide security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday. Photo by 1st Lt. Mark Andries/USMC | License Photo

Aug. 30 (UPI) -- The United States on Monday completed its evacuation mission at the international airport in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced, officially bringing an end to the longest war in American history.

Coalition forces were racing to meet an Aug. 31 deadline imposed by the victorious Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops following a conflict that spanned four presidencies.

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U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Kenneth McKenzie announced that the last C-17 military transport aircraft carrying U.S. citizens and eligible Afghans who assisted the country during the two-decade war had left Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul at 3:29 p.m. EDT.

"The last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan," he said, adding that Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson were aboard the final flight.

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The departure of the last C-17 signals "the end of the nearly 20-year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, 2001," McKenzie said.

"It's a mission that brought Osama bin Laden to a just end, along with many of his al-Quida co-conspirators, and it was not a cheap mission -- the cost was 2,461 U.S. service members and civilians killed and more than 20,000 who were injured."

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Calling the effort the "largest non-combatant evacuation in U.S. military history," McKenzie said U.S. forces took 79,000 civilians through the airport and out of the country over an 18-day span.

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In total, U.S. and coalition aircraft combined to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians -- all enabled by U.S. forces securing the airfield, he said.

During a Defense Department briefing earlier Monday, spokesman John Kirby said the State Department was working with individuals for last-moment evacuations.

Major Gen. Hank Taylor said U.S. forces airlifted more than 1,200 from the airport on Sunday.

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"U.S. military troops have shown tremendous bravery and compassion as they put themselves in harm's way to evacuate as many American citizens and Afghans as possible during this operation," Taylor said.

Taylor added that 3,700 Afghan refugees were to arrive at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and Philadelphia International Airport from intermediary locations.

Kirby said there were still active threats, but U.S. forces still have the capability to protect themselves. He said the State Department was working with Americans still in Afghanistan to get them out.

U.S. engagement with Afghanistan has now changed, and its diplomatic presence in the Middle Eastern country has transferred to Doha, Qatar, due to the uncertain security situation, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

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"It was the prudent step to take," he told reporters during a press briefing.

From the new station, the State Department will continue to help Americans, foreign nationals and Afghans exit the country, he said, adding that they believe there are fewer than 200 Americans left in Afghanistan who want to leave.

These Americans, he said, are long-time residents of Afghanistan, which is why it is difficult to know the exact number and many of whom are dual citizens with extended families in Afghanistan.

For many, he said, it's a "painful choice" to decide to leave.

"Our commitment to them and to all Americans in Afghanistan -- and everywhere in the world -- continues," he said. "If any American in Afghanistan tells us that they want to stay for now and then in a week or a month or a year they reach out and say, 'I've changed my mind,' we will help them leave."

Early Monday, rockets were fired at the Kabul airport.

"The president was informed that operations continue uninterrupted at HKIA and has reconfirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize doing whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a brief statement.

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The attack targeted the airport, which has been the scene of chaos for two weeks since the mass exodus began after the Taliban seized control of the country.

Late Sunday, the State Department said in a statement the Taliban have promised that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizens authorized to leave the country will be allowed to do so unimpeded.

Nearly 100 countries committed to ensuring the safe exit of all of their citizens, employees, at-risk Afghans.

"We will continue issuing travel documentation to designate Afghans, and we have the clear expectation of and commitment from the Taliban that they can travel to our respective countries," the statement said.

Hours earlier, a U.S. drone strike targeted a suspected car bomb in Kabul believed to be loaded with explosives near the airport.

Ten civilians, all part of an extended family, were killed in the strike, surviving relatives told The Washington Post and The New York Times. Seven of those killed were children.

The strike came days after 13 American troops and close to 200 Afghans were killed in two suicide bombings at the airport.

The Islamic State-Khorasan claimed responsibility for both attacks. The group is an Afghanistan offshoot of the Islamic State terror group and a rival group to the Taliban.

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Late Sunday, U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said the military was aware of reports of casualties from the drone strike and that powerful explosions that followed indicated the vehicle was carrying a large amount of bomb material.

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