America’s longest war draws to a close as last U.S. troops depart Kabul airport

The last U.S. forces flew out of Kabul’s airport, the Pentagon said Monday, bringing down the curtain on America’s longest war.

The head of the U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, said the final liftoff of American military aircraft came one minute before midnight in Kabul — just before the start of Tuesday, the day set by President Biden as the final deadline for the departure of U.S. troops.

“Every single U.S. service member is out of Afghanistan,” McKenzie said — setting a capstone on a military presence that once exceeded 100,000 American troops and drew the U.S. into a conflict that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.

Within moments of the final U.S. takeoff, Taliban fighters swiftly moved into Hamid Karzai International Airport, the scene of a massive airlift that carried more than 116,000 people out of the country since the militant group seized power two weeks earlier in a swift but nearly bloodless offensive.

Taliban fighters fired salvos into the air and shouted “Allahu akbar!’’ Strings of tracers lit the sky as the last U.S. plane flew toward the horizon.

Throughout the day Monday, the airlift continued, with military cargo planes landing and taking off. As the airport was emptied, with hours remaining before the final U.S. departure, militants from the Taliban’s bitter rival, Islamic State, fired a volley of rockets at the airport, but caused no injuries.

Various squads of Taliban converged on the runway, pausing to enter a hangar with a number of partially disassembled Chinook helicopters. One squad, the Fateh Zwak, posed for a photo in front of one of the Chinooks and called over a Taliban cameraman. They lifted M4 rifles into the air as they cheered.

The Taliban, the militant movement that ruled the country a generation ago, is now fully back in control, and many Afghans deeply fear for their future, despite assurances from the group that it will allow women to participate in public life and will not seek vengeance on those who opposed it.

The final hours of the U.S. presence were marked by tense and harrowing scenes as the effort shifted away from evacuating Afghans to readying American troops and officials’ own departure. Threats from Islamic State continued up until the end, the Pentagon said, after a suicide bombing on Thursday just outside the airport’s main gate killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans.

Near what had been until recently the American-controlled part of the airport, a lone mine-resistant armored protection vehicle sat awkwardly among the weeds. Nearby, other Taliban members took joyrides in armored SUVs left behind, honking as they barreled down the tarmac.

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