Last troops exit Afghanistan, ending America's longest war

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending America's longest war and closing a chapter in military history likely to be remembered for colossal failures, unfulfilled promises and a frantic final exit that cost the lives of more than 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, some barely older than the war.

Hours ahead of President Joe Biden's Tuesday deadline for shutting down a final airlift, and thus ending the U.S. war, Air Force transport planes carried a remaining contingent of troops from Kabul airport late Monday. Thousands of troops had spent a harrowing two weeks protecting the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape a country once again ruled by Taliban militants.

In announcing the completion of the evacuation and war effort. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the last planes took off from Kabul airport at 3:29 p.m. Washington time, or one minute before midnight in Kabul. He said a number of American citizens, likely numbering in "the very low hundreds," were left behind, and that he believes they will still be able to leave the country.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken put the number of Americans left behind at under 200, "likely closer to 100," and said the State Department would keep working to get them out. He praised the military-led evacuation as heroic and historic and said the U.S. diplomatic presence would shift to Doha, Qatar.

Biden said military commanders unanimously favored ending the airlift, not extending it. He said he asked Blinken to coordinate with international partners in holding the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave in the days ahead.

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Taliban declare victory from Kabul airport, promise security

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban triumphantly marched into Kabul's international airport on Tuesday, hours after the final U.S. troop withdrawal that ended America's longest war. Standing on the tarmac, Taliban leaders pledged to secure the country, quickly reopen the airport and grant amnesty to former opponents.

In a show of control, turbaned Taliban leaders were flanked by the insurgents' elite Badri unit as they walked across the tarmac. The commandos in camouflage uniforms proudly posed for photos.

Getting the airport running again is just one of the sizeable challenges the Taliban face in governing a nation of 38 million people that for two decades had survived on billions of dollars in foreign aid.

"Afghanistan is finally free," Hekmatullah Wasiq, a top Taliban official, told The Associated Press on the tarmac. "The military and civilian side (of the airport) are with us and in control. Hopefully, we will be announcing our Cabinet. Everything is peaceful. Everything is safe."

Wasiq also urged people to return to work and reiterated the Taliban pledge offering a general amnesty. "People have to be patient," he said. "Slowly we will get everything back to normal. It will take time."

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Thousands face weeks without power in Ida's aftermath

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana communities battered by Hurricane Ida faced a new danger as they began the massive task of clearing debris and repairing damage from the storm: the possibility of weeks without power in the stifling, late-summer heat. 

Ida ravaged the region's power grid, leaving the entire city of New Orleans and hundreds of thousands of other Louisiana residents in the dark with no clear timeline on when power would return. Some areas outside New Orleans also suffered major flooding and structure damage. 

"There are certainly more questions than answers. I can't tell you when the power is going to be restored. I can't tell you when all the debris is going to be cleaned up and repairs made," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards told a news conference Monday. "But what I can tell you is we are going to work hard every day to deliver as much assistance as we can."

President Joe Biden met virtually on Monday with Edwards and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves along with mayors from cities and parishes most impacted by Hurricane Ida to receive an update on the storm's impacts, and to discuss how the Federal Government can provide assistance. 

"We are closely coordinating with state and local officials every step of the way," Biden said.

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California fire approaches Lake Tahoe after mass evacuation

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (AP) — A ferocious wildfire swept toward Lake Tahoe on Tuesday just hours after roads were clogged with fleeing cars when the entire California resort city of South Lake Tahoe was ordered to evacuate and communities just across the state line in Nevada were warned to get ready to leave. 

The popular vacation haven normally filled with tens of thousands of summer tourists emptied out Monday as the massive Caldor Fire rapidly expanded. Vehicles loaded with bikes and camping gear and hauling boats were in gridlock traffic, stalled in hazy, brown air that smelled like a campfire. Police and other emergency vehicles whizzed by. 

"It's more out of control than I thought," evacuee Glen Naasz said of the fire that by late Monday had been pushed by strong winds across California highways 50 and 89, burning mountain cabins as it swept down slopes into the Tahoe Basin. 

Additional strike teams arrived just after dark and many of the new firefighters were immediately dispatched to protect homes in the Christmas Valley area about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from South Lake Tahoe, said fire spokesman Dominic Polito. 

"We're flooding the area with resources," he said. "Wherever there are structures, there are firefighters on the ground." 

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Analysis: War is over but not Biden's Afghanistan challenges

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the final stream of U.S. cargo planes soaring over the peaks of the Hindu Kush, President Joe Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to end America's longest war, one it could not win.

But as the war ended with a chaotic, bloody evacuation that left stranded hundreds of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghans who had aided the American war effort, the president kept notably out of sight. He left it to a senior military commander and his secretary of state to tell Americans about the final moments of a conflict that ended in resounding American defeat. 

Biden, for his part, issued a written statement praising U.S. troops who oversaw the airlift of more than 120,000 Afghans, U.S. citizens and allies for their "unmatched courage, professionalism, and resolve." He said he would have more to say on Tuesday.

"Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended," Biden said in his statement. 

The muted reaction was informed by a tough reality: The war may be over, but Biden's Afghanistan problem is not.

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As US military leaves Kabul, many Americans, Afghans remain

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the final five U.S. military transport aircraft lifted off out of Afghanistan, they left behind up to 200 Americans and thousands of desperate Afghans who couldn't get out and now must rely on the Taliban to allow their departure.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. will continue to try to get Americans and Afghans out of the country, and will work with Afghanistan's neighbors to secure their departure either over land or by charter flight once the Kabul airport reopens.

"We have no illusion that any of this will be easy, or rapid," said Blinken, adding that the total number of Americans who are in Afghanistan and still want to leave may be closer to 100.

Speaking shortly after the Pentagon announced the completion of the U.S. military pullout Monday, Blinken said the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will remain shuttered and vacant for the foreseeable future. American diplomats, he said, will be based in Doha, Qatar.

"We will continue our relentless efforts to help Americans, foreign nationals and Afghans leave Afghanistan if they choose," Blinken said in an address from the State Department. "Our commitment to them holds no deadline."

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Displaced by Ida: Low on funds, family of 7 looks for refuge

For Shelly Savoie, time is running out at the Motel 6 in Bossier City, Louisiana. So are diapers and dollars.

Savoie and her family of six fled their home in a New Orleans suburb on the West Bank of the Mississippi river as powerful Hurricane Ida hit the region, knocking out power for thousands, destroying homes and flooding streets. But the immediate relief she felt at having been able to escape the storm's destruction has given way to numerous anxieties.

Savoie's biggest concern is that she will run out of money. She thought she would only have to stay in a hotel for about three nights. Now she's discovered that widespread power outages across the state — including in Jefferson Parish, where she lives — might not be resolved for weeks. She also found out that the ceiling of her home partially caved in when Ida passed through and that tree limbs fell on the house and across her yard. 

"I'm on edge, definitely," Savoie told The Associated Press on Monday in Facebook messages written during a break from making calls to the Red Cross. "I'm trying to stay calm, especially around the kids."

It's not easy. Savoie is afraid she could lose her job: The phone agent for two major retail stores left her computer at home when she rushed out with her 2-year-old twin daughters; her 11-year-old son; her 17-year-old daughter and the daughter's 18-year-old boyfriend; and the young couple's 6-month-old son. 

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Mormon vaccine push ratchets up, dividing faith's members

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — After more than a year of attending church virtually, Monique Allen has struggled to explain to her asthmatic daughter why people from their congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don't wear masks. Allen said she's taught her daughter that wearing a mask is Christlike, but now she worries her child feels like an outcast.

Church leaders recently issued their strongest statement yet urging people to "limit the spread" by getting COVID-19 vaccines and wearing masks, but Allen said she fears it's still not enough to convince the many families in her congregation who refuse to wear masks and have succumbed to anti-vaccine misinformation.

Members of the faith widely known as the Mormon church remain deeply divided on vaccines and mask-wearing despite consistent guidance from church leaders as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

About 65 percent of Latter-day Saints who responded to a recent survey said they were vaccine acceptors, meaning they've gotten at least one dose or plan to soon. Another 15 percent identified as hesitant, and 19 percent said they would not get the vaccine, according to the survey this summer from the Public Religion Research Institute, a polling organization based in Washington, and Interfaith Youth Core.

The survey found 79 percent of white Catholics and 56 percent of white Evangelical Protestants identified as vaccine acceptors.

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California moves slowly on water projects amid drought

SITES, Calif. (AP) — In 2014, in the middle of a severe drought that would test California's complex water storage system like never before, voters told the state to borrow $7.5 billion and use part of it to build projects to stockpile more water.

Seven years later, that drought has come and gone, replaced by an even hotter and drier one that is draining the state's reservoirs at an alarming rate. But none of the more than half-dozen water storage projects scheduled to receive that money have been built.

The largest project by far is a proposed lake in Northern California, which would be the state's first new reservoir of significant size in more than 40 years. People have talked about building the Sites Reservoir since the 1950s. But the cost, plus shifting political priorities, stopped it from happening.

Now, a major drought gripping the western United States has put the project back in the spotlight. It's slated to get $836 million in taxpayer money to help cover it's $3.9 billion price tag if project officials can meet a deadline by year's end. The Biden administration recently committed $80 million to the reservoir, the largest appropriation of any water storage scheduled to receive funding next year. 

And the project could get some of the $1.15 billion included in an infrastructure bill that has passed the U.S. Senate.

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No stranger to plagues, Venice opens film fest with caution

ROME (AP) — Visitors to Venice could be forgiven for not realizing that beyond the majesty of St. Mark's Square and the romance of gondola rides lies a city that helped provide a baseline of what the world knows today about containing pandemics.

It was here that the term "quarantine" was coined, after merchant ships arriving in the 15th-century Venetian Republic were moored for 40 days ("quaranta giorni" in Italian) to see if their crews were afflicted with the plague. It was here that the first isolated pestilence hospital was built on a solitary island in the lagoon, a precursor to today's COVID-19 isolation wards. And it was in Venice that 16th-century doctors donned beak-nosed masks filled with aromatic herbs to cleanse the air they breathed when treating the sick — an attempt at self-protection that today is the favored choice for Venetian Carnival costumes. 

Venice's central place in the history of battling pandemics provides a relevant backdrop to this year's Venice Film Festival, which opens Wednesday with the premiere of Pedro Almodovar's in-competition film "Parallel Mothers." Almodovar developed the project during Spain's 2020 coronavirus lockdown, one of the harshest in the West. 

In a pre-opening screening Tuesday, Italian director Andre Segre presents a short documentary shot last year showing how Venice organizers coped with COVID-19 to stage the first and only in-person international film festival during the first year of the outbreak, a limited affair that nevertheless showed it could be done. Cannes came back to life this year after skipping 2020, and other big festivals went largely virtual after the pandemic erupted.

The scenes in Segre's film — shocking then, normal now — feature half-full theaters for Hollywood premieres, masked movie stars, cleaners in hazmat suits and the "blink, blink, blink" of remote thermometers taking temperatures at festival checkpoints. 

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