Afghanistan updates: Top Pentagon officials speak to war veterans: ‘It was not in vain’

Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — With the U.S. military and diplomatic withdrawal now complete after 20 years in Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken over the country, including the Kabul airport, the site of an often-desperate evacuation effort the past two weeks.

But even as the last American troops were flown out to meet President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline, other Americans who wanted to flee the country were left behind and the Biden administration is now focused on a “diplomatic mission” to help them leave.

When President Joe Biden sat down with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos for an exclusive one-on-one interview at the White House on Aug. 18, he said he was committed to keeping the U.S. military in Afghanistan as long as needed. “If there are American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out,” he said.

Here are the latest developments. All times Eastern:

Sep 01, 3:43 pm
Officials ‘haunted by choices’ at airport, ‘majority’ of SIVs left behind: State Department official

As the State Department shifts to help Americans and Afghans left behind evacuate, a senior official conceded the evacuation efforts weren’t “pretty, it was very challenging. … It involved some really painful tradeoffs and choices for everybody involved.”

“Everybody who lived it is haunted by the choices we had to make and by the people we were not able to help depart in this first phase of the operation,” a senior State Department official who was on the ground at the airport in Kabul told reporters late Wednesday morning.

But the official praised the “heroic” consular officers who processed those who entered the airport and at times walked the line looking through the massive crowds for U.S. passports and Green cards — and offered some explanations for what went wrong and arguing those crowds outside the gates bordered on “mob violence.”

The official said, based on anecdotal evidence, that “the majority” of Special Immigrant Visa holders were left behind — those Afghan interpreters, guides and others who helped U.S. forces and applied for a visa — along with their families.

“We feel an enormous commitment to keep faith with all of the people to whom we owe this debt, and we’re going to continue to do everything we can in the coming weeks and months to fulfill that commitment and to help those who wish to leave Afghanistan to do so.”

The official declined to provide more details on what that looks like just yet.

Sep 01, 2:25 pm
’Possible’ US will partner with Taliban against ISIS-K

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, asked about the relationship between the U.S. and Taliban going forward, given their recent and uneasy cooperation during the evacuation mission, offered a pragmatic view, without sugar-coating the militant group.

“We don’t know what the future of the Taliban is. But I can tell you from personal experience that this is a ruthless group from the past, and whether or not they change remains to be seen,” Milley said. “And as far as our dealings with them at that airfield or in the past year or so, in war, you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not what you necessarily want to do.”

Asked whether the U.S. might coordinate with the Taliban against ISIS-K, the terror group responsible for a suicide bomber attack last week which that killed 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghans, Milley said, “It’s possible.”

Defense Secretary Austin then chimed in, “I would not want to make any predictions.”

Sep 01, 1:48 pm
Top US general to forces: ‘Your service mattered’

Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley vowed that the Pentagon will continue it counterterrorism efforts despite not having troops on the ground in Afghanistan, echoing President Biden’s remarks from Tuesday in saying the U.S. mission has changed over time.

“For the past 20 years, there’s not been a major attack on our homeland. And it is now our mission to ensure that we continue our intelligence efforts, continue our counterterrorism efforts, continue our military efforts to protect the American people for the next 20 years,” he said.

Defense Sec. Austin: “It’s our duty to defend this nation, and we’re not going to take our eye off the ball. And that means relentless counterterrorism efforts against any threat to the American people from any place.” https://t.co/Wfv8QKQBYU pic.twitter.com/zZNfMPCfms

— ABC News (@ABC) September 1, 2021

Milley said that as of Wednesday morning, approximately 20,000 Afghans have arrived at eight different military bases in the continental U.S. and more refugees are on the way. Since the evacuation mission began, he said 124,334 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan by the U.S. and partners.

“Those 124,000, they never knew the 13 who died, and they will never know the 22 who were wounded or the thousands of dead and thousands of wounded who came before them. But they will now live in freedom because of American blood shed on their behalf,” Milley said.

The top U.S. general closed his remarks with a message for service members.

“We’re all conflicted. Feelings of pain and anger, sorrow and sadness, combined with pride and resilience,” he said. “One thing I am certain of: For any soldier, sailor, Marine and their family, your service mattered, and it was not in vain.”

Sep 01, 1:26 pm
Top Pentagon officials speak on Afghanistan withdrawal

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke on the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years from the Pentagon on Wednesday, offering his thanks to U.S. forces and their families.

“We have concluded our historic evacuation operation and ended the last mission of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. America’s longest war has come to a close,” he said.

Austin hailed the historic evacuation effort in an “immensely dangerous” environment over the past few weeks. He reminded that 2,461 troops were killed in Afghanistan, as well as the more than 20,000 injured — “some still carrying the scars that you can’t see on the outside.”

Defense Sec. Austin: “My thoughts have been with the brave Americans who stood up to serve after Al-Qaeda attacked us on September 11, 2001. And my heart is with their families and loved ones.”https://t.co/Wfv8QKQBYU pic.twitter.com/ReEDPzgA6W

— ABC News (@ABC) September 1, 2021

“Our forces risk their own lives to save the lives of others. And 13 of our very best paid the ultimate price. Many of them were too young to personally remember the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “The United States military will always honor their heroism.”

Speaking directly to Afghan war veterans and their families, Austin said he understands it’s been a difficult time but said he hopes they can look back at the long conflict with “thoughtfulness and respect.”

“I’ve heard strong views from many sides in recent days, and that’s vital. That’s democracy. That’s America,” he said. “As we always do, this department will look back clearly and professionally, and learn every lesson that we can.”

“Right now, it’s time to thank all those who served in this war,” he added.

Sep 01, 12:30 pm
Putin says US achieved ‘nil’ in Afghanistan war 

Russian President Vladimir Putin again poured scorn on the U.S. military’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan, saying on Wednesday the nation achieved “nil” in an attempt to “civilize the local people.”

“The only result is tragedies and losses for those who were doing that, the United States, and especially for the people who live in the territory of Afghanistan. This is a nil result, not to say a negative one,” Putin said to teenagers at an educational facility in Russia.

Putin, who has previously said Russia has no plans to deploy troops to the country the Soviet Union once occupied but then was forced to retreat from in 1988 and 1989, claimed the U.S. approach to Afghanistan was flawed in that it tried to instill Western norms on Afghan people.

It is “impossible to impose anything from outside,” he said.

Russia, as well as China, have not yet formally recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate governing power but have generally shown more of a willingness to work with the militant group than have other nations.

-ABC News’ Tanya Stukalova

Sep 01, 11:44 am
Sole province uncontrolled by Taliban fights for independence

The Panjshir Valley, around 60 miles of mountain terrain in ​​north-central Afghanistan, is the only one of 34 provinces in the country not controlled by the Taliban, and the people of Panjshir have vowed to continue the fight.

Anti-Taliban forces were seen in Panjshir on Wednesday conducting military exercises and patrolling hilltops as attempts to bring the Taliban and people of Panjishir to talks have reportedly failed.

It’s unclear how many, but a number of Afghans have traveled to the region in hopes of sanctuary in what’s become a holdout for rebel fighters and known as a “historical heartland of resistance.”

Taliban General Mobin Khan said earlier this month that the Taliban are “trying to resolve the issue through talks, and Panjshir may surrender peacefully — otherwise, the responsibility for the war lies with the short-sighted.”

-ABC News’ Sohel Uddin and Guy Davies

Sep 01, 11:37 am
Taliban hold parade in Kandahar, urge civilians to stay

Taliban forces have rallied around the country to celebrate the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces, holding a parade of vehicles in the Kandahar province on Wednesday.

Haji Mohammad Yousaf, the Taliban’s governor in Kandahar, and Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid spoke to Afghans gathered at the event.

Meanwhile, in Kabul, scenes around an abandoned airport area, where crowds of Afghans civilians once gathered around U.S. troops, showed empty vehicles covered in barbed wire as Taliban fighters have taken control of the airport and its perimeter.

In an interview with “Good Morning Britain” on Wednesday, Taliban spokesperson Dr. Suhail Shaheen said those with the right documents will be allowed to leave Afghanistan, but “urged” them to stay.

-ABC News’ Guy Davies

Sep 01, 10:26 am
Taliban celebrates US departure

With all U.S. ground troops out of Afghanistan, scenes around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Wednesday showed Taliban fighters in Afghan National Army uniforms after the militant group seized the airport, with some firing celebratory gunshots into the air — a far different picture from the days preceding.

Hours before Biden addressed the nation on Tuesday and firmly defended the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban held a mock funeral in Kabul with show caskets draped with U.S., U.K. and French flags to symbolize what it has called the defeat of NATO allies after 20 years.

The Taliban also released a video overnight they say shows their troops flying over the Kandahar province in an Afghan military helicopter as the militant group works to maintain a hold on the country.

A defiant Biden on Tuesday said that he refused to extend a “forever war” and would not be “extending a forever exit.” The president on Wednesday is meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and does not have any Afghanistan-related briefings on his public schedule.

Aug 31, 6:53 pm
1st plane to bring aid since Taliban took control landed Monday

As the U.S. prepared to evacuate from Kabul airport Monday, the World Health Organization flew a plane into the country with desperately needed aid.

On Monday, 12.5 metric tons of urgent medical supplies were flown from WHO’s warehouse in Dubai to Mazar-i-Sharif airport — not to Kabul, because of the “ongoing disruptions” there, according to WHO.

This is the first medical aid plane to land in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control, according to WHO — and it comes amid a growing need and deteriorating conditions.

“WHO is exploring more options to get further shipments into the country until a reliable humanitarian airbridge to scale-up collective humanitarian effort is established,” the UN agency said in a statement.

Aug 31, 6:17 pm
Top enlisted service member tells troops their service mattered

The military’s top enlisted service member sent a message to U.S. troops reassuring them that their service in Afghanistan mattered.

“You can hold your head high that we prevented an attack on the United States homeland,” writes Ramon Colon-Lopez, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“To each of you, your service mattered,” he added. “This is personal to us, and we know it is personal to every one of you.”

He also praised those involved in the massive airlift from Afghanistan.

“Your actions honor the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters in arms who lost their lives or were wounded in Afghanistan,” he wrote. “Over the last two decades and the last 2 weeks. you embodied our American values of equality, liberty, and human dignity for all.”

Aug 31, 5:53 pm
US-funded journalists left behind, no updates on airport talks, overland routes

Some 500 Afghan journalists and their families who were employed by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) were left behind in Afghanistan — reporters, producers and more who worked for Voice of America and other U.S.-funded outlets, according to the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We did not forget about USAGM employees and their families, nor will we. These individuals … have not only worked for us, they have worked with us,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price. “We remain keenly focused on getting them out safely just as soon as we can.”

Price wouldn’t confirm how many there are or what the plans to evacuate them may be, saying it was “not prudent for us to speak to tactics.”

He cited the same reason for declining to say more about how the U.S. may help some Americans travel on overland routes to escape Afghanistan, saying only that it “reinforces the point that we’re looking at all available options to bring Americans to safety.”

Price also had no status update on the negotiations to reopen Kabul’s airport, no update on how many American citizens remain in Afghanistan and no update on a protecting power — a country that oversees U.S. interests where there is no embassy, like Switzerland in Iran or the Czech Republic in Syria.

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