WASHINGTON — President Biden on Tuesday hailed what he called the “extraordinary success” of the evacuation of Kabul as he vehemently defended his decision to end America’s war in Afghanistan, just one day after the end of a two-week rescue of 125,000 people from Kabul that saw the deaths of 13 service members.
Speaking from the Cross Hall at the White House, Mr. Biden said the nation owed a debt of gratitude to the troops who died in the evacuation mission.
“Thirteen heroes gave their lives,” he said in a speech in which he offered no apologies for either his decision to end the war or the way in which his administration executed that mission. “We owe them and their families a debt of gratitude we can never repay, but we should never, ever, ever forget.”
Mr. Biden appeared intent on forcefully rejecting criticism of the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, offering a defensive recounting of his decision-making and blaming former President Donald J. Trump for negotiating a bad deal with the Taliban that boxed Mr. Biden and his team in.
“That was the choice, the real choice between leaving or escalating,” Mr. Biden declared, his tone angry and defensive as he opened the first minutes of his remarks. “I was not going to extend this forever war.”
Before Mr. Biden’s speech, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, had said the president would “lay out his decision to end the war in Afghanistan after 20 years, including the tough decisions he made over the last seven months since he took office to bring the war to a close,” she said. “He will make clear that as president, he will approach our foreign policy through the prism of what is in our national interests, including how best to continue to keep the American people safe.”
Ms. Psaki also said that the president would thank commanders and service members “who executed a dangerous mission in Kabul and airlifted more than 124,000 people to safety; he will also offer thanks to the veterans and volunteers who supported this effort.”
The president delivered his remarks almost 20 years after the United States ousted the Taliban from power in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and just a day after the last American troops and diplomats departed the country, which is once again under Taliban rule.
Mr. Biden pointedly did not announce the news on Monday that the final transport plane carrying American forces had left Afghanistan, leaving that instead to Pentagon officials who briefed reporters after the plane had left Afghan airspace. On Sunday, he declined to answer a question about Afghanistan from a reporter following his trip to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, to witness the transfer of the remains of 13 American service members killed in a bombing attack at the Kabul airport last week, the final U.S. casualties of the war.
Mr. Biden’s speech comes as White House officials are hoping to wind down a difficult episode for his presidency, and focus instead on domestic crises at hand — including the ongoing Delta variant wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and the aftermath of Hurricane Ida’s destructive path through the Gulf Coast.
The president is also expected to pivot in the days and weeks ahead toward a push in Congress next month to pass key provisions of the president’s multi-trillion-dollar economic agenda, including major spending on infrastructure and social services.
For more than two weeks, the rushed exit of troops from Afghanistan, and the chaos and violence around the airport, have diverted the White House from the president’s domestic agenda.
From the tarmac where the last American plane had departed from Afghanistan’s capital around midnight, the Taliban’s spokesman declared victory Tuesday in their two-decade fight against U.S. occupation.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman, congratulated Afghans as he toured the airport. “This victory belongs to us all,” he said.
Mr. Mujahid made the declaration as he led journalists through a facility littered with the remains of the frantic operation to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing the new reality of life under the rule of the militant group.
But celebrations by the Taliban are likely to be short-lived. The group now faces the daunting challenge of governing a desperately poor and polarized country, plagued by food and cash shortages, terrorist threats and an intensifying humanitarian crisis. A third of all Afghans face what the United Nations calls crisis levels of food insecurity.
Mr. Mujahid, flanked by Taliban officials and fighters from the group’s elite unit, said that the airport, still named after the president whom the United States installed years earlier, would reopen for air traffic within days. He also repeated the Taliban’s previous assurances that Afghans with passports and visas would be allowed to leave the country, regardless of their role during the American occupation.
“The end of the occupation was our biggest goal, and we have been fighting for this day for the last 20 years: to end this war and attack of foreigners on us and bring our own Islamic government,” Mr. Mujahid said. “That goal is achieved now.”
He added that the Taliban would work to “strengthen the government and protect our beliefs and serve our nation. This is a day of happiness and a historical day.”
Despite Mr. Mujahid’s assertions, the passenger terminal was in an evident state of disorder. Shattered glass littered hallways, and destroyed vehicles jammed the parking lot.
And tens of thousands of Afghans who had clung to the hope of fleeing a country under Taliban rule now faced the reality that a primary escape hatch — Kabul’s airport — was under the group’s control.
Qatar and Turkey were said to be in discussions with the Taliban about whether they would help operate civilian flights from the airport.
On the northern side of the airport, from which the U.S. military had airlifted some 123,000 people out of the country, even more signs of disarray were visible. Dozens of military vehicles and armored S.U.V.s were left behind. Alongside them were piles of wrappers from military food rations and empty plastic bottles of baby milk.
In front of an adjacent hangar sat a number of aircraft that had, until recently, been used to help keep the Taliban from power: A-29 Super Tucano propeller bombers, MD-530 gunship helicopters and Mi-17 transport helicopters. U.S. military officials have said that the aircraft left behind were all permanently disabled.
Afghans woke up Tuesday morning to the reality of an Afghanistan firmly under the control of the Taliban, with intensifying fears that their country was being subsumed by a repressive regime amid escalating economic and humanitarian crises.
As the last hulking American planes receded from view over the capital, Kabul, overnight and news of their departure became clear, jubilant Taliban fighters shot their guns in the air, the arc of tracer rounds lighting up the night sky. The American withdrawal marked the end of a 20-year occupation that cost over $2 trillion, claimed more than 170,000 lives and culminated in a takeover by the very insurgents that the United States had sought to remove.
Saad Mohseni, the owner of Tolo, Afghanistan’s largest broadcaster, emphasized the huge hurdles facing the Taliban, including winning support from everyday Afghans.
“People’s expectations have grown dramatically after the past 20 years of freedom and liberation, and the pain is yet to come,” he said. “Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?”
The Taliban now confront the need to form a government that many Afghans and foreign governments may not even recognize.
Basic services like electricity are under threat as many state employees have not turned up for work. Washington has frozen Afghan government reserves, and the International Monetary Fund has blocked Afghanistan from accessing emergency reserves.
“Today, almost half of the population of Afghanistan — 18 million people — need humanitarian assistance to survive,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said in a statement on Tuesday. “One in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from. More than half of all children under 5 are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year. People are losing access to basic goods and services every day.”
Conditions will probably soon get much worse, with food stocks likely to run out at the end of September, said Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan.
In Kabul, “we may be on the brink of an urban humanitarian catastrophe,” he said. “Prices are up. There are no salaries. At some point, millions of people will reach desperation.”
Mr. Guterres called in his statement for “all parties to facilitate safe and unimpeded humanitarian access for lifesaving and life-sustaining supplies” such as food and medical equipment.
A U.S. military official said that every American who had wanted to leave and could get to the airport had been taken out. But a number of Americans, thought to be fewer than 300, remain either by choice or because they were unable to reach the airport.
Some people turned to social media to ask for help getting relatives out of the country. “My family were at the entrance of Kabul airport for 4 days, after that being left behind, please help them from a third country,” one man who identified himself as a former British military interpreter wrote in a publicly visible message on Twitter to a British lawmaker.
Since capturing Kabul, the Taliban have sought to rebrand themselves as more moderate. But many in Afghanistan recall the group’s rule in the 1990s, which deprived women of basic rights like education and encouraged punishments like floggings, amputations and mass executions.
The early signs of the Taliban’s behavior do not look encouraging. Since capturing Kabul on Aug. 15, they have cracked down on protests, violently suppressed the news media and rounded up opponents.
And while pledging to respect women’s rights, they warned the women of Afghanistan that it might be safest for them to remain at home. That is, until the rank-and-file Taliban fighters have been trained not to mistreat them.
Adam Nossiter, Azi Paybarah and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
Even as the United States finalizes its departure from Afghanistan, it faces a dilemma there as wrenching as any during the 20-year war: how to deal with the new Taliban government.
The question is already manifest in the debate over how deeply to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K.
Another: Whether to release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the United States. Handing the Taliban billions would mean funding the machinery of its ultraconservative rule. But withholding the money would all but ensure a sudden currency crisis and halt on imports, including food and fuel, starving Afghan civilians whom the United States had promised to protect.
These are only the beginning. Washington and the Taliban may spend years, even decades, pulled between cooperation and conflict, compromise and competition, as they manage a relationship in which neither can fully tolerate nor live without the other.
However fierce in battle, the Taliban seem to understand that governing an impoverished, war-ravaged nation is a very different challenge requiring economic and diplomatic support, both of which they are already seeking from the United States.
Washington, for its part, sees Afghanistan as a potential haven for international terrorists, a center of geopolitical competition against its greatest adversaries and the site of two looming catastrophes — Taliban rule and economic collapse — that could each ripple far beyond the country’s borders.
At home, President Biden already faces a backlash over Afghanistan that would be likely to intensify if he were seen as enabling Taliban rule. But he may find that securing even the most modest American aims in the country requires tolerating the group that now controls it.
WASHINGTON — American diplomats have left Afghanistan, and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will remain closed, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Monday, after the military announced that it had completed its withdrawal from the country.
The disintegration of diplomacy was a stunning turnabout from plans to stay and help Afghanistan transition from 20 years of war and to work toward peace, however tenuous, with a government that would share power with the Taliban. This month, Mr. Blinken had pledged that the United States would remain “deeply engaged” in Afghanistan long after the military left.
But with the Taliban firmly in control, what was one of the largest U.S. diplomatic missions in the world will for now be greatly scaled back, based in Doha, the Qatari capital, and focused largely on processing visas for refugees and other immigrants.
“Given the uncertain security environment and political situation in Afghanistan, it was the prudent step to take,” Mr. Blinken said in remarks at the State Department.
He sought to portray the departure as a “new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan.”
“It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy,” Mr. Blinken said, commending the U.S. diplomats, troops and other personnel who had worked at the embassy, which just last month had employed around 4,000 people — including 1,400 Americans.
Left uncertain was whether American efforts to stabilize the Afghan government would continue — the main thrust of years of painstaking work and negotiations with leaders in Kabul that were supported by billions of dollars in American taxpayer funding.
Instead, Mr. Blinken said that any engagement with the Taliban — a longtime U.S. enemy that seized power when President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan on Aug. 15 — “will be driven by one thing only: our vital national interests.”
Exactly four weeks earlier, on Aug. 2, Mr. Blinken had left little doubt that the Biden administration intended to keep the U.S. Embassy in Kabul open.
“Our partnership with the people of Afghanistan will endure long after our service members have departed,” he said then. “We will keep engaging intensely in diplomacy to advance negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban with the goal of a political solution, which we believe is the only path to lasting peace.”
As many as 200 American citizens, and tens of thousands of Afghans, were left behind in a two-week military airlift that Mr. Blinken called one of the largest evacuation efforts in U.S. history. He demanded that the Taliban keep its word and allow them to leave safely once they had exit documents in hand.
More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in recent weeks, including about 6,000 Americans.
Mr. Blinken also said that the United States would closely watch the Taliban’s efforts to stanch terrorism in Afghanistan, as the group has said it will do, and would continue to work with the international community to provide humanitarian aid to millions of Afghans who need food, medicine and health care after decades of war and political instability.
He struck a resolute tone about the diplomatic retreat, and in reminding Americans about the cost of the conflict.
America’s longest war, with its casualties and the resources that were sunk into it over the past 20 years, “demands reflection,” Mr. Blinken said.
“We must learn its lessons, and allow those lessons to shape how we think about fundamental questions of national security and foreign policy,” he said. “We owe that to future diplomats, policymakers, military leaders, service members. We owe that to the American people.”
Even as the United States ended its presence in Afghanistan on Monday, a large-scale mission at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, was underway to help thousands of people, most of them Afghans who were evacuated in the final days of the mission in Kabul, prepare for resettlement.
More than 2,600 people have been flown from the base in Germany to the United States since the evacuation operation began, with roughly as many expected to depart on Tuesday, U.S. officials said. More than 18,000 people remain in hangars and in hundreds of tents set up at the edge of the airfield, waiting for clearance to be flown to America.
“There will not be anything that stops here at Ramstein,” Brig. Gen. Joshua M. Olson, commander of the 86th Airlift Wing, said on Monday. “We will continue to bring in evacuees and take care of them.”
More than 23,000 people have been processed at Ramstein in the past 11 days, including several hundred U.S. citizens and members of allied countries. General Olson was forced to briefly close the base to new arrivals on Sunday after the area reached capacity.
Every person arriving at Ramstein undergoes biometrical screening, and any documentation they have is checked. Then they are assigned to living quarters where they wait for a flight to take them to Washington D.C. or Philadelphia.
An agreement between the United States and the German government requires that evacuees arriving at the base be processed and moved on within 10 days of their arrival.
An Afghan man named Rafiqullah, who asked that only his first name be used to avoid reprisals back home, was waiting with his family in a hangar built to service military planes that had been turned into a temporary airport terminal. He said that he hoped to make it to California, where he has family.
“I am glad to be out of Afghanistan,” he said. “I wanted to leave before the Taliban attacked.”
Five babies have been born during the evacuation: two in tents set up by the medical staff on base; two at the nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center; and one, a girl named Reach, aboard a C-17 aircraft that was bringing evacuees to the base.
General Olson, when asked if, looking back a week ago, he would have thought it possible to transform the base from a military logistics hub to an evacuation center for thousands of Afghans as well as some U.S. citizens and others, shook his head.
“Never in a million years,” he said.
The last moments of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan were captured in two images that were a reversal of the American invasion nearly 20 years ago: A U.S. soldier leaving as Taliban fighters took control.
U.S. Central Command identified the final soldier to leave as Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne. He was boarding the last flight out of Kabul’s airport. Shortly after, the Los Angeles Times posted a video of its Middle East bureau chief, Nabih Bulos, entering the airport with Taliban fighters.
The image of Maj. Donahue, a firearm in his right hand, boarding a C-17 plane Monday night, is shrouded in the green tint suggestive of night vision goggles.
Nearby, and shortly after, a handful of Taliban fighters were recorded casually walking into an airport hangar. The moment was captured in a 30-second video, viewed nearly two million times on Twitter, by Mr. Bulos.
The overhang is brightly lit. Fighters walk by an empty swivel chair and toward one side of the hangar, where several helicopters sit unoccupied.
The fighters, according to Mr. Bulos, were entering “what was only minutes ago” an American patrolled portion of the airport. In another video posted by Mr. Bulos, Taliban fighters shoot celebratory gunfire into the air.
The two images capture the unlikely transfer of power between the United States, which invaded the country in 2001, and the Taliban, which has waged a bloody campaign to return to power ever since.
Though the Taliban are firmly in control of most of Afghanistan, pockets of resistance remain in the mountainous northeast of the country, and there have been reports of fighting there between the holdouts and the Taliban.
The resistance has been centered in Panjshir province northeast of Kabul, and there have also been skirmishes reported in neighboring Baghlan province.
The Panjshir Valley is the base of an anti-Taliban group that has a corps of fighters and calls itself the National Resistance Front, and is led by Ahmad Massoud. When the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001, the same valley was the stronghold of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, led by Mr. Massoud’s father, Ahmad Shah Massoud.
After President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Aug. 15, a vice president in his government, Amrullah Saleh, took refuge with Mr. Massoud’s forces in Panjshir and proclaimed himself the acting president.
Hours after the final American flight departed from Kabul’s airport — which had been the site of a majority military base as well as a passenger terminal — the Taliban entered and assured the world that operations there would continue.
But with doubts that the group has the expertise or capacity to run the complex hub, the future of the airport, which is still called Hamid Karzai International, is an open question.
The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on Tuesday that the Taliban were in discussions with Qatar and Turkey over the administration of the airport, but there has been no clear sense of what that might look like.
“There are talks underway today with the Qataris and the Turks, because today the airport no longer functions,” Mr. Le Drian told the television channel France 2.
He added that the discussions were focusing on the “management” of the airport and on ensuring safe access to the area for those seeking to leave Afghanistan on commercial flights. Mr. Le Drian noted that the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on Monday demanding that the Taliban honor their commitment to let people freely leave the country.
“Now it has to be implemented,” he said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has reportedly said that the Taliban refused his country’s offer to provide armed security at the airport.
Mr. Erdogan, speaking to journalists while traveling from Montenegro to Turkey on Saturday evening, said that the discussions with the Taliban were continuing, according to Turkish news outlets.
“The Republic of Turkey has a certain amount of knowledge, a certain amount of infrastructure — we would like to help with that knowledge and infrastructure,” Mr. Erdogan said, the outlets reported. “But to help, the doors first should open,” he added. “For that right now, our intelligence is having meetings with its Taliban counterparts.”
Turkey, which was part of the NATO mission to Afghanistan, had been responsible for security at the Kabul airport before the withdrawal. Mr. Erdogan said that in initial discussions, the Taliban had raised the prospect of providing security while Turkey ran the airport.
Mr. Erdogan noted that such a proposal presented obvious problems. “How could we give you the security? You take the security and then if there would be bloodshed again, how could we explain this to the world,” he said.
“This is not an easy job,” he added.
The British foreign minister, Dominic Raab, on Tuesday pushed back on a report from Politico that suggested U.S. forces kept a critical gate at Kabul airport open to allow British troops to continue evacuating their staff despite intelligence about a likely terrorist attack.
The gate at the airport, called Abbey Gate, was the scene of devastating suicide bombings on Thursday that killed at least 170 people, including scores of civilians waiting to be airlifted out of the country, and 13 members of the U.S. military. According to the Politico report, British forces had sped up their own withdrawal timeline and had pushed for the gate to remain in use despite a warning that an Islamic State affiliate was planning an assault on the area.
Mr. Raab was asked about the accusations during an appearance on Sky News, and he said that the claims were false. He noted that Britain had issued a change in its travel advice before the attack and had urged people to leave the area because of the risk.
“It’s just not true to suggest that, other than securing our civilian staff inside the airport, that we were pushing to leave the gate open,” he said.
He also noted that Britain had coordinated “very closely with the U.S. in particular around the ISIS-K threat that we anticipated — although tragically were not able to prevent.” Mr. Raab said that civilian staff had been taken out of a processing center and to the airport via Abbey Gate but that his country had not requested that the access point be left open.
The back-and-forth was likely to further strain relations between London and Washington after a tense period in which British lawmakers have accused President Biden of failing to consult them on the timing or logistics of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Britain suffered the second-most casualties, after the United States, of any NATO member engaged in the war.
Mr. Raab, too, has come under severe criticism at home for being on vacation in Crete when the Taliban took control of Kabul this month and for only returning to Britain after the militant group had seized control of the Afghan capital. Reports from the British news media have suggested that he was advised to return two days earlier.
In the fear-filled days after the Taliban stormed into Kabul, she was hailed as the brave young woman who questioned one of the militants on live television, providing hope that Afghan women might not lose all their freedoms.
But days later, like others who feared the militants’ wrath, Behishta Arghand, a former news presenter with Tolo news, fled the country, landing with her parents and four siblings in a sparsely furnished villa in a walled compound on the outskirts of Doha, Qatar.
Ms. Arghand, 24, spoke proudly of her interview and said she hoped the Taliban would follow through on their vows to allow more openness than when they ruled the country before the United States invasion 20 years ago.
“We don’t have any government now,” she said in an interview. “We just hope they do what they promise. But now everyone is scared of the Taliban.”
Ms. Arghand recalled the shock she felt when she learned that the Taliban had entered Kabul, and the fear that gripped the Afghan capital the next day. Still, she said, she went to work to make a point about the role of women in public life.
“I wanted to show the Taliban that we want to work,” she said. “We want to be in the media. It’s our right in society.”
Ms. Arghand said she was presenting the news on Aug. 17 when she got a feeling that there was a guest in the studio. She soon realized it was Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a member of the Taliban’s media team.
She had only a few moments to prepare.
Her producers, she said, told her to try to draw out information without challenging her guest. But once on the air, she challenged him anyway, asking about reports that the Taliban had conducted house-to-house searches in the city.
After the interview, her phone was flooded with messages from friends and relatives who were both proud and terrified that she had questioned her guest so directly.
Not long after, she and her family fled, fearing that remaining in Kabul was too dangerous.
Ms. Arghand is now staying in a house with no television or internet. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be there. She doesn’t know where she’ll go next.
But she dreams of returning home someday to help women.
“If I am alive, I will do a lot for my home,” she said. “My country needs my generation.”
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