Britain and America officially ended their military presence in Afghanistan late last night with the final US troops flying out from Kabul’s airport – leaving behind hundreds of citizens and Afghan allies desperate to flee the country now in the hands of the Taliban.
A night-vision image showed America’s Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, boarding a military transport as the last US soldier to leave Afghanistan after 20 years of war.
The RAF had made its last evacuation flight on Sunday to give US forces enough time to clear the ground ahead of the deadline set by Joe Biden, bringing to an end a deployment which began in the wake of September 11.
The UK government helped fly some 15,000 people to safety, but stories have emerged of interpreters who helped the armed forces over the last 20 years and even people with British passports stranded behind Taliban checkpoints. It is not known precisely how many people who were promised sanctuary in the UK were left behind.
Some 200 American passport holders are now thought to be living under Taliban rule, with an unknown number of Afghans promised sanctuary – thought to number in the thousands – also abandoned.
‘There’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,’ General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said on Monday night. ‘We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out.’
Shortly after US troops left the airport, images emerged of Taliban Badri 313 units – known as the group’s ‘special forces’ – securing the airport while dressed in US-made kit and carrying American weapons – seizing more US helicopters, planes and vehicles in the process.
Celebratory gunfire followed, along with fireworks. On Tuesday morning, senior Taliban figures including spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid gathered at the airstrip for a celebratory press conference – hailing the end of what they called ‘western occupation’.
‘Congratulations to Afghanistan… this victory belongs to us all,’ Mujahid told reporters, saying the Taliban’s victory is a ‘lesson for other invaders and for our future generation. It is also a lesson for the world,’ he added.
All eyes will now turn to how the Taliban handles its first few days with sole authority over the country, with a sharp focus on whether it will allow other foreigners and Afghans to leave the country.
Reports suggest many are already fleeing through Pakistan to the east and Iran to the west. The US and UK are still working on arrangements to allow people to be evacuated from these neighbouring countries.
While the international community appears to have accepted the reality of Taliban rule, the UK and US remain willing to take on Islamic State, also known as Daesh.
British forces are prepared to launch air strikes to target so-called Islamic State terrorists in Afghanistan, the head of the RAF indicated as the US-led military presence in the country came to an end.
The group’s Afghan offshoot, Isis-K, carried out the bloody attack on Kabul airport in the final days of the evacuation effort which killed two Britons and the child of a British national, along with 13 US service personnel and scores of Afghans.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the global coalition against the terrorist group was ready ‘to combat Daesh networks by all means available, wherever they operate’.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston indicated the RAF could strike Isis-K targets in Afghanistan.
‘Ultimately what this boils down to is that we’ve got to be able to play a global role in the global coalition to defeat Daesh, whether it’s strike, or whether it’s moving troops or equipment into a particular country, at scale and at speed,’ he told the Daily Telegraph.
‘If there’s an opportunity for us to contribute I am in no doubt that we will be ready to – that will be anywhere where violent extremism raises its head, and is a direct or indirect threat to the UK and our allies.
‘Afghanistan is probably one of the most inaccessible parts of the world, and we’re able to operate there.’
The attack on Kabul airport on Thursday has led to a transatlantic blame game, with US sources indicating the gate that was attacked was kept open to facilitate the British evacuation.
According to leaked Pentagon notes obtained by Politico, Read Admiral Peter Vasely, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, had wanted to close Abbey Gate but it was kept open to allow UK evacuees into the airport.
The Ministry of Defence said that throughout the operation at the airport ‘we have worked closely with the US to ensure the safe evacuation of thousands of people’.
The final US troops left Kabul on a flight shortly before midnight local time on Monday, meeting President Biden’s commitment to withdraw ahead of the deadline.
The Taliban proclaimed ‘full independence’ for Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.