Secretary of State Antony Bliken said the end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan does not mean the end of efforts to evacuate American citizens from the war-torn country, but that work will be part of a new “diplomatic” mission instead of a military one.
“The protection and welfare of Americans abroad remains the State Department’s most vital and enduring mission,” he said in a speech just a few hours after the last American troops left Kabul airport, ending the nearly 20-year military presence there.
“Additionally, we worked intensely to evacuate and relocate Afghans who worked alongside us. We’ve gotten many out, but many are still there. We will keep working to help, and our commitment to them has no deadline.”
Blinken’s vow came after Pentagon officials acknowledged that several hundred Americans and an unknown number of Afghan allies remain trapped in the Taliban-controlled country after the end of the 18-day U.S. evacuation mission, which transported roughly 132,000 people out of Afghanistan.
It also cost the lives of 13 U.S. service members, killed in a terrorist attack on Aug. 26.
Numerous lawmakers and humanitarian groups had urged the administration to extend the self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline to end the evacuation mission, arguing that confusion and chaos around the airport stopped thousands of vulnerable individuals there from escaping.
In a statement just after the last U.S. military flight left, President Joe Biden stood by his decision to end the American military presence there.
“For now, I will report that it was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and of all of our commanders on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned,” he said.
“Their view was that ending our military mission was the best way to protect the lives of our troops, and secure the prospects of civilian departures for those who want to leave Afghanistan in the weeks and months ahead.”
Blinken promised that is still a possibility, even without the American military firepower to secure flights.
“The main point I want to drive home here today is that America’s work in Afghanistan continues,” he said. “We have a plan for what’s next. We’re putting it into action.”
That includes relocating American diplomatic offices for Afghanistan to Qatar while trying to establish some form of ties with the Taliban leadership in Kabul.
“We will hold the Taliban to its pledge to let people freely depart Afghanistan,” Blinken said. “The Taliban has committed to let anyone with proper documents leave the country in a safe and orderly manner ... As of today, more than 100 countries have said that they expect the Taliban to honor those travel authorizations.
“A new chapter of America’s engagement with Afghanistan has begun. It’s one in which we will lead with our diplomacy.”
Biden is expected to address the nation on the Afghanistan situation on Tuesday afternoon.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.