This ghostly night vision image captures both the end of one painful era and the start of another.
It shows Major General Chris Donahue who, a minute before midnight on Monday, became the last US soldier to board the final flight out of Afghanistan.
The Pentagon released the green and black snap taken at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport hours after America officially ended its 20-year military presence in the country.
Though it’s a still image, Donahue appears to be moving briskly, his face expressionless. He is wearing full combat gear, with night vision goggles atop his helmet and a rifle by his side.
The last American soldier to leave Afghanistan: Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commanding general of the @82ndABNDiv,… https://t.co/JMenyAe9In
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@Department of Defense 🇺🇸)
His departure, alongside his fellow US troops, completed a military operation that, with the help of allied forces, evacuated 123,000 Afghans from their homeland within two weeks of the Taliban’s capture of power. However, tens of thousands who helped Western countries during the war were left behind.
Donahue and his comrades will carry harrowing images from their chaotic last days in the country’s capital Kabul: parents passing babies to them across razor wire, two young Afghans falling from a plane climbing high in the sky, and the aftermath of an Islamic State suicide bomb attack outside the airport on August 26 that killed scores of Afghans and 13 of their own.
Celebratory gunfire echoed across the city as the Taliban took control of the airport before dawn on Tuesday following the withdrawal of the final US servicemen.
Shaky video footage distributed by the group showed fighters entering the airport after the last plane took off, marking the end of a hasty and humiliating exit for Washington and its NATO allies.
Just listen to the intensity of the celebratory gunfire in Kabul.
I get the sense the Taliban expended more ammuni… https://t.co/8zeLsoxz3l
"The last US soldier has left Kabul airport and our country gained complete independence," Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf said, according to Al Jazeera TV.
America’s longest war took the lives of nearly 2,500 American soldiers and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost some $2 trillion.
Although it succeeded in driving the Taliban from power and stopped Afghanistan being used as a base by al Qaeda to attack the US, it ended with the hardline Islamic militants controlling more of the country than they ever did during their previous rule from 1996 to 2001.
Those years were marked by the brutal enforcement of the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, and the world is now waiting to see whether it will form a more moderate and inclusive government in the months ahead.
Thousands of Afghans have already fled fearing Taliban reprisals, while a contingent of Americans – estimated by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at less than 200 and possibly closer to 100 people – wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told a Pentagon briefing that America’s chief diplomat in Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was on the last flight out.
"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," McKenzie told reporters.
As the US troops made their final exit, they destroyed more than 70 aircraft, dozens of armored vehicles and disabled air defenses that had thwarted an attempted Islamic State rocket attack on the eve of their departure.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (centre) addresses a media conference at Kabul airport on August 31AFP via Getty Images
President Joe Biden, in a statement, defended his decision to stick to a Tuesday deadline for withdrawing forces, saying that the world would hold the Taliban to their commitment to allow safe passage for those who want to leave Afghanistan.
"Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended," Biden said as he thanked his country’s military for carrying out the dangerous evacuation. He plans to address the American people on Tuesday afternoon.
Biden has said the US long ago achieved the objectives it set in ousting the Taliban in 2001 for harbouring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the September 11 attacks on the United States.
However, the president has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats for his handling of the crisis since the Taliban took over Kabul earlier this month.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the U.S. withdrawal a “national disgrace” that was “the direct result of President Biden’s cowardice and incompetence”.
On the other side, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse tweeted: "Bravo to our diplomats, military, and intelligence agencies. An airlift of 120,000 people in that dangerous and tumultuous situation is something no one else could do."
Blinken said the US was prepared to work with the new Taliban government if it does not carry out reprisals against opponents in the country.
"The Taliban seeks international legitimacy and support. Our position is any legitimacy and support will have to be earned," he said.
Evacuees from Afghanistan at their temporary shelter inside the US Army Rhine Ordonanz Barracks in Kaiserslautern, GermanyREUTERS
The Taliban must revive a war-shattered economy without being able to count on the billions of dollars in foreign aid that flowed to the previous ruling elite and fed systemic corruption.
The population outside the cities is facing what UN officials have called a catastrophic humanitarian situation worsened by a severe drought.
A Taliban official in Kabul said the group wants people to lead an Islamic way of life and get rid of all foreign influences.
"Our culture has become toxic, we see Russian and American influence everywhere, even in the food we eat. That is something people should realise and make necessary changes. This will take time but will happen,” he said.