Two weeks of chaos: A timeline of the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan

An exit door at Forward Operating Base Lightning, a former U.S. Army base in eastern Afghanistan. The base is now abandoned. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
6 min

One year ago, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban stunned the world. Afghans fled to the airport in droves. A suicide bombing killed nearly 200 people. The departure of U.S. forces just days later brought an eerie quiet as the country grappled with its new reality.

The chaos and bloodshed reflected the fraught legacy of America’s longest war.

“Those last two weeks of August were really a microcosm of much of the previous 20 years of the war in Afghanistan, in the sense that you had a situation where there did not appear to be a type of U.S. plan or strategy,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Here’s a look at the final days of America’s presence in Afghanistan.

Aug. 15 — The Taliban takes over

Kabul fell quickly. Taliban fighters faced little resistance as they entered the capital on the main roads. Afghan officials — including the country’s president — fled. And as the militants took over the presidential palace, so began a new era of Taliban rule.

This footage from Al Jazeera shows Taliban fighters in Kabul's presidential palace on the day the group swept into the capital. (Video: Al-Jazeera)

Intelligence assessments did not predict such a swift collapse. In June, U.S. officials had said Kabul could capitulate within six to 12 months after U.S. withdrawal, leaving many stunned and unprepared when it fell in mere hours.

Within days, billboards depicting women were defaced or torn down. Afghan flags were lowered. Cafes stopped playing music.

The Taliban, wary of international isolation, claimed women would be treated equally.

“We assure the international community that there will be no discrimination against women,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid at an Aug. 17 news conference. “But,” he added, “within the frameworks we have.”

Aug. 16 — A frenzied airport exodus begins

Thousands of people rushed to Kabul’s airport after the government’s collapse. They left behind loved ones and carried only their most precious belongings. The crush of people trying to escape underscored the fears of Taliban rule upending life, especially for young Afghans who had never lived under its regime.

Afghans and foreigners rushed to the Kabul airport on Aug. 16,2021 in hopes of leaving the country as the Taliban declared victory. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Desperation drove some people to cling to the wings of airplanes as they took off. Fada Mohammad, a young dentist, fell to his death on Aug. 16. His remains were found on a rooftop four miles from the airport. A teenage soccer player also died after plummeting from a U.S. aircraft.

The rush to flee Kabul was made worse because “down to the final days of collapse, people were in denial,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a former consultant to the State and Defense departments on Afghanistan and the emeritus chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Biden administration’s earlier decision to vacate Bagram air base, 35 miles north of Kabul, only made it harder for Afghans to escape.

Kabul’s airport, added Cordesman, “was from the start a terrible place to get to. The roads are very narrow, it’s not easy to secure. It’s very, very hard once people actually cram in there to manage access.”

Aug. 26 — Nearly 200 die in suicide attack

A suicide bombing at the airport’s perimeter killed more than 170 people, including 13 U.S. service members.

(Video: Asvaka News Agency via AP)

“People were burning alive, people could not breathe,” one Afghan eyewitness, who was with his wife and other family members waiting for an evacuation flight, told The Washington Post that day.

The attack was claimed by Islamic State-Khorasan, the Islamic State’s arm in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Terrorists are opportunists at the end of the day,” Kugelman noted. “And ISK was taking advantage of a crowded, scared, chaotic scene.”

President Biden traveled to Dover, Del., on Aug. 29, 2021 to attend the dignified transfer of 13 U.S. service members killed in a bombing at Kabul airport. (Video: The Washington Post)

The United States may have succeeded in preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a training ground for attacks on U.S. soil, he said, “But the U.S. military presence failed to prevent the emergence of a new terror group in Afghanistan. It’s hard to think of a more sobering reflection of failed U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.”

Aug. 29 — A U.S. drone strike kills 10 civilians

As one of its last acts in the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military conducted a drone strike that killed 10 civilians. The United States said it was targeting an Islamic State operative with a car full of explosives linked to ISIS-K. In fact, the man was a longtime aid worker for the United States.

Seven victims were children.

A U.S. drone strike targeting the Islamic State on Aug. 29, reportedly killed 10 civilians in Kabul including several small children. (Video: The Washington Post)

The strike was a grim reminder that U.S. efforts to combat terrorism in the country often put innocent people in the crossfire. As of April 2021, more than 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians had died because of the war, according to an estimate by the Cost of War project at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

Aug. 30 — Thousands of Afghans are left behind as withdrawal ends

The United States completed its withdrawal, evacuating more than 122,000 people from the country in the final several days. Between 100 and 200 Americans remained in Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021, according to the Biden administration. A Republican-led Congressional investigation into the withdrawal found that more than 1,450 Afghan children were evacuated without a parent or guardian, and more 800 Americans were left behind, The Post reported Monday. The investigation, which has not been released to the public, found that despite continued evacuations this year, as of late July 84 Americans who want to leave were still in the country.

The last U.S. troops leave Kabul on Aug. 30, ending a 20-year war. (Video: Reuters)

Thousands more Afghans, who feared they might be targets for the Taliban, were also stranded.

Since September, violence has decreased in most parts of Afghanistan. Yet security has not brought stability or prosperity.

Despite the Taliban’s assurances that women would not be discriminated against, it has issued a steady stream of orders curbing their rights. Girls are still not permitted to attend high school, and their travel and dress are now restricted.

As the country’s economy tanked amid a cutoff of international aid, the country faced mass hunger and displacement. Today, the World Food Program estimates more than 18 million people in Afghanistan are facing crisis levels of hunger.