The US yesterday formally began withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan, bringing its longest war nearer to an end, but also heralding an uncertain future for a country in the tightening grip of an emboldened Taliban.
US officials on the ground have said that the withdrawal was already a work in progress — and yesterday was just a continuation — but Washington has made an issue of the May 1 date, because it was a deadline agreed with the Taliban last year to complete the pullout.
The skies above Kabul and nearby Bagram airbase have been buzzing with more US helicopter activity than usual, following the start on Thursday of a concurrent NATO withdrawal.
Afghan security forces were on high alert yesterday for any possible attacks on retreating US troops.
“The Americans will formally begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan starting May 1 and the Taliban might increase the violence,” Acting Afghan Minister of the Interior Hayatullah Hayat told top police commanders, according to an audio clip given to reporters.
Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib said the Taliban “may choose war” in an attempt to grab power after US troops fully exit, but security forces are ready to face the insurgents. The prospect of an end to the US presence after 20 years comes despite fighting raging across the countryside in the absence of a peace deal.
A stark reminder of what remains came late on Friday, with a truck bomb in Pul-e-Alam, south of the capital, killing at least 24 people and wounding 110 more.
US President Joe Biden is determined to end what he called “the forever war,” announcing last month that the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US forces would be complete by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Taliban said the US troop withdrawal was to be completed by yesterday as agreed in last year’s accord with Washington, and it was a “clear violation” that the troops were not fully out.
“This in principle opens the way for our mujahidin to take appropriate action against the invading forces,” Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem said, adding that the group is awaiting orders from its leaders.
Since the US withdrawal deal was struck the Taliban has not directly engaged foreign troops, but insurgents have mercilessly attacked government forces in the countryside and waged a terror campaign in urban areas.
The exit of US forces has only exacerbated the fear felt by ordinary Afghans.
“Everyone is scared that we might go back to the dark days of the Taliban era,” said Mena Nowrozi, who works at a private radio station in Kabul. “The Taliban are still the same; they have not changed.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that government forces — which for months have carried out most of the ground fighting against the Taliban — are “fully capable” of keeping the insurgents at bay.
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