The United States formally began withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan on Saturday, ending the longest war, but it also heralded an uncertain future for a country that is tightening with the Taliban.
U.S. officials on the ground said the withdrawal is a work in progress (and May 1 is just a continuation), but Washington has released a number of the date because it is a deadline agreed with the Taliban in 2020 to complete the withdrawal.
The skies over Kabul and the nearby Bagram air base were bubbling with more U.S. helicopter activity than usual as the retreat prepared, following the start Thursday of a simultaneous NATO downsizing.
Afghan security forces were on high alert Saturday for possible attacks on retreating U.S. troops.
“The Americans will formally begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan from May 1, and the Taliban could increase the violence,” Acting Interior Minister Hayatullah Hayat told top police commanders, according to an audio clip given to journalists.
Afghan National Security Council adviser Hamdullah Mohib said the Taliban “could choose war” in an attempt to seize power after U.S. troops come out completely, but security forces were prepared to confront the fighters.
The prospect of an end to the American presence after 20 years comes despite fighting the camp in the absence of a peace deal.
Chatham House’s Hameed Hakimi told Cambridge’s Al Jazeera that the withdrawal process has been changing the power vacuum and violence around Kabul.
“The main immediate concern of the United States in my view is that the Taliban will not attack them while they are withdrawing by September,” he said.
“As for the Afghan government, they believe that if they attack the Taliban this would force them to reach some kind of negotiating table.”
A full reminder of what is left arrived on Friday afternoon with a car bomb in Pul-e-Alam, south of the capital, killing at least 24 people and injuring 110 more.
U.S. President Joe Biden is determined to end what he called “the war forever,” and announced last month that the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces would complete the 20th anniversary of the US attacks. on September 11th.
“A terrible attack 20 years ago … can’t explain why we should stay there in 2021,” Biden said.
The Taliban said the withdrawal of U.S. troops should be completed on May 1, as agreed in last year’s deal with Washington, and it was a “clear violation” that the troops were not completely out.
In a statement on Saturday, Taliban military spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the May 1 deadline for a full withdrawal “paved the way for [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] mujahideen to take all the contractions it deems appropriate against the occupation forces ”.
However, he said fighters on the battlefield will wait for a decision from the leadership before launching any attack and that the decision will be based on “the sovereignty, values and best interests of the country.”
Since the U.S. withdrawal agreement was reached, the Taliban have not directly hired foreign troops, but insurgents have ruthlessly attacked government forces in the camp and waged a deadly campaign in urban areas.
“Who are you killing?”
The departure of US forces has only aggravated the fear felt by ordinary Afghans.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that government forces – which for months have waged most of the ground fighting against the Taliban – are “fully capable” of keeping Taliban fighters at bay.
He said the withdrawal also means the Taliban have no reason to fight.
“Who are you killing? What are you destroying? Your pretext of fighting foreigners is already over, ”Ghani said in a speech this week.
Analysis of the worst case
Still, General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint U.S. chief of staff, has not ruled out total chaos.
“At worst, you have a potential collapse of the government, a potential collapse of the military,” he said earlier this week.
“You have a civil war and all the humanitarian catastrophe it entails.”
The US-led military attack on Afghanistan began in October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.
Two decades later, after the deaths of nearly 2,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans, Biden said the final withdrawal was justified, as U.S. forces had made sure the country could not. again becoming a base for foreign attackers to plot against the West.