After two decades, America’s last soldier left without pomp, without ceremony, certainly without the grandeur of victory.
Bathed in the green light of a night vision scope, Maj Gen Chris Donahue, the final American pair of “boots on the ground”, walked up the rear ramp of an air force C-17 on Monday night.
In body armor and helmet, the commander of the US army’s 82nd Airborne Division carried his weapon in his right hand, his eyes downcast as his solitary walk ended America’ ill-starred mission in Afghanistan.
At precisely 11.59pm Kabul time, the final of five American C-17s was wheels up from Afghan soil. Donahue sent a final message to his troops: “job well done, I’m proud of you all”.
The image of Donahue’s lonely exit, posted publicly by US Central Command, may come to symbolize America’s humiliating, violence-plagued retreat from the country.
US president Joe Biden earlier insisted America’s exit from Afghanistan was not “remotely comparable” to the chaos of its departure from Saigon in 1975. A senator at the time, he remembers the damage done to US prestige by the black-and-white photographs of helicopters hurriedly airlifting people from the roof of a building near its embassy.
But those images too, have a contemporary iteration. Donahue is seen calmly leaving the airport but the anarchy there just days ago, with Afghans clinging to the side of US air force planes, may come to represent America’s exit.
Behind Donahue, blurred by the camera, stands Hamid Karzai airport, scene of chaos recent and distant, vehicles and equipment still on the tarmac.
Beyond its blast walls and razor wire lie millions of dollars more in American military materiel, now in the hands of the Taliban, the enemy US troops went in to fight.
Even further beyond lies a broken country, the “Graveyard of Empires” living up to its name, stubbornly redoubtable to foreign invasion. Coalition forces lost more than 3,500 troops over 20 years. The US spent more than $2tn on Afghanistan, more than it contributed to the Marshall plan that rebuilt Europe after the second world war.
But the change that blood and treasure won in Afghanistan was always fragile, and much of it now appears set to be rapidly reversed.
There was no flourishing of Afghanistan under foreign occupation. More than 47,000 Afghan civilians died in the conflict; millions have fled as refugees to other countries. Afghanistan remains the world’s largest supplier of heroin; the country has consistently been ranked among the world’s least peaceful and most corrupt.
The best-equipped military in the history of the world, turned out to be no match for the patience of a brutal, unrelenting Taliban.
“You have the watches,” the Taliban are fond of saying. “We have the time.”
With Donahue’s lonely walk, America’s time is up.