Afghanistan war ends: Full statement by General Kenneth McKenzie

Gen McKenzie admitted that some Americans who want to get out are still stranded there

Namita Singh
Tuesday 31 August 2021 08:56 BST
General Kenneth McKenzie announces completion of US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

With the final US military flight leaving the Afghan capital on Monday evening, General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, announced the full military withdrawal from Afghanistan during a Pentagon news conference.

This brings an end to the 20-year war in the south Asian country that began in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks in America. General McKenzie, however, admitted that some of the Americans who want to get out of the country are still stranded there.

Without elaborating on the number of Americans who were left behind, General McKenzie said: “Look, there’s a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. 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 that we wanted to get out, and there still would have been people who would have been disappointed with that. It’s a -- it’s a tough situation.”

Speaking shortly after the Pentagon press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken put the number at under 200, "likely closer to 100," adding that the State Department would keep working to get them out.

Here is a transcript of General McKenzie’s remarks:

I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the mission to evacuate American citizens, third country nationals and vulnerable Afghans. The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30, this afternoon. at 3:29 pm East coast time, and the last manned aircraft is now clearing the space above Afghanistan.

We will soon release the photo of last C-17 departing Afghanistan with Major General Chris Donahue and the US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson aboard.

While the military evacuation is complete, the diplomatic mission to ensure additional US citizens and eligible Afghans who want to leave continues. And I know that you have heard, and I know that you’re going to hear more about that from the State Department shortly. Tonight’s withdrawal signifies both the end of the military component of the evacuation, but also, the end of the nearly 20 year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001.

It’s a mission that brought Osama bin Laden to a just end along with many of his Al-Qaeda co-conspirators, and it was not -- it was not a cheap mission. The cost was 2,461 US service members and civilians killed and more than 20,000 who were injured. Sadly, that includes 13 US service members who were killed last week by an ISIS-K suicide bomber. We honour their sacrifice today as we remember their heroic accomplishments.

No words from me could possibly capture the full measure of sacrifices and accomplishments of those who served, nor the emotions they’re feeling at this moment. But I will say that I’m proud that both my son and I have been a part of it.

Before I open it up for questions, I do want to provide some important context to the evacuation mission that we just completed in what was the largest noncombatant evacuation in the US military’s history.

Since August the 14th, over an 18-day period, U.S. military aircraft have evacuated more than 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport. That includes 6,000 Americans and more than 73,500 third-country nationals and Afghan civilians. This last category includes special immigrant visas, consular staff, at-risk Afghans and their families.

In total, US and coalition aircraft combine to evacuate more than 123,000 civilians, which were all enabled by US military service members who were securing and operating the airfield.

On average we have evacuated more than 7,500 civilians per day over the 18 days of the mission, which includes 16 full days of evacuations, and more than 19,000 on a single day. These numbers do not include the roughly 5,000 service members and their equipment that were sent to Afghanistan to secure the airfield and who will withdraw on the conclusion of our mission.

The numbers I provided represent a monumental accomplishment, but they do not do justice to the determination, the grit, the flexibility and the professionalism of the men and women of the US military and our coalition partners who were able to rapidly combine efforts and evacuate so many under such difficult conditions. As such, I think it’s important that I provide you with what I hope will be some valuable context.

When the president directed the complete withdraw of US forces from Afghanistan in April, the team at US Central Command began to update and refine our existing plan for a potential noncombatant evacuation operation, or a NEO, in Afghanistan.

We had a framework of plans that included numerous branches and sequels depending on the nature of the security environment. Over time we continued to refine our plans, which included the interagency, the international community and other combatant commands.

Plans such as this are built upon a number of facts and assumptions, and facts and assumptions change over time. While observing the security environment deteriorate, we continued to update our facts and assumptions.

As the security situation rapidly devolved in Afghanistan, we took a number of actions to position ourselves for a potential NEO based upon direction from the secretary of defence. We positioned forces in the region and put them on increased alert. We began to pre-position supplies, and we began some preparatory work on intermediate facilities in Qatar with the support of our gracious host nation.

When the evacuation was formerly directed on August the 14th, we began to carry out our plan, based upon the initial assumption that the Afghan security forces would be a willing and able security partner in Kabul, defending the capital or a matter of weeks, or at least for a few days. Within 24 hours, of course, the Afghan military collapsed completely, opening Kabul up to the Taliban’s advance.

On August the 15th, in a meeting with Taliban senior leadership in Doha, I delivered a message on behalf of the President that our mission in Kabul was now the evacuation of Americans and our partners, that we would not tolerate interference and that we would forcefully defend our forces and the evacuees if necessary. The Taliban’s response in that meeting was in line with what they’ve said publicly: While they stated their intent to enter and occupy Kabul, they also offered to work with us on a deconfliction mechanism to prevent miscalculation while our forces operated in close quarters. Finally, they promised not to interfere with our withdrawal.

It’s important to understand that within 48 hours of the NEO execution order, the facts on the ground had changed significantly. We had gone from cooperating on security with a longtime partner and ally to initiating a pragmatic relationship of necessity with a longtime enemy.

And to that environment, Rear Admiral Pete Vasely and Brigadier General Farrell Sullivan of the Marines, and subsequently Major General Chris Donahue of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, deployed and employed their forces and did extraordinary work with the leading elements or reinforcement package to safely close the embassy in one period of darkness or one -- one evening, to establish a deconfliction mechanism with the Taliban, to establish security at the airport, and to bring in the rest of our reinforcements into the airport. They accomplished this difficult list of tasks within 48 hours of supporting the transfer of the embassy to the airport.

I visited Kabul on Tuesday, August the 17th, to see the work being done to establish security firsthand and to observe the transition to the evacuation. I left on a C-17 that brought more than 130 Afghans and American citizens out from Karzai International Airport to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Our men and women on the ground at the airport quickly embraced the dangerous and methodical work of defending the airport while conducting the hand -- the hand screening of more than 120,000 evacuees from six different entry points under the airfield. We also conducted three separate helicopter extractions of three distinct groups of civilians, including at least 185 American citizens, and with our German partners, 21 German citizens.

Additionally, US Special Operations Forces reached out to help break in -- bring in more than 1,064 American citizens and 2017 SIVs, or Afghans at risk, and 127 third-country nationals, all via phone calls, vectors and escorting. We have evacuated more than 6,000 US civilians, which we believe represents the vast majority of those who wanted to leave at this time.

It would be difficult to overestimate the number of unusual challenges and competing demands that our forces on the ground have successfully overcome. The threat to our forces, particularly from ISIS-K, was very real and tragically resulted in the loss of 13 service members and dozens of Afghan civilians.

I said this before, but I’d like to say it again, we greatly appreciate the contributions of the many coalition partners that stood with us on the ground at the Karzai International Airport. I’m just going to single out one nation as an example of the many, the Norwegians, who maintained their hospital at the airport. And they were absolutely critical for the immediate care of our wounded after the Abbey Gate attack. Even after the attack, they agreed to extend the presence of their hospital to provide more coverage for us.

Our diplomats have also been with us in Kabul from the beginning, and their work in processing over 120,000 people stands right beside that of their military partners. We were a team on the ground.

As I close my remarks, I would like to offer my personal appreciation to the more than 800,000 service members and 25,000 civilians who have served in Afghanistan, and particularly to the families of those whose loved ones have been lost or wounded. Your service, as well as that of your comrades and family members, will never be forgotten.

My heart is broken over the losses we sustained three days ago. As the poem by Laurence Binyon goes, we will remember them.

The last 18 days have been challenging. Americans can be proud of the men and women of the armed forces who met these challenges head-on.

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