The United States officially began withdrawing its remaining troops from Afghanistan on Saturday, ending its longest war, but also heralding an uncertain future for a country increasingly under the grip of the emboldened Taliban.
U.S. officials on the ground have said the pullout is a work in progress – and May 1 is just a continuation – but Washington has made a question about the date because it is a deadline agreed to with the United States. Taliban in 2020 to complete the withdrawal.
The skies over Kabul and the nearby Bagram air base were abuzz with higher-than-usual US helicopter activity as the withdrawal prepared, after a simultaneous withdrawal from the US began Thursday. NATO.
Afghan security forces were on alert Saturday for possible attacks on retreating US troops.
“The Americans will officially begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan from May 1 and the Taliban could increase the violence,” Acting Home Secretary Hayatullah Hayat told senior police commanders, audio clip released to journalists.
Afghan National Security Council adviser Hamdullah Mohib said the Taliban “may choose war” to try to seize power after the full exit of US troops, but security forces were ready to confront the fighters .
The prospect of an end to the American presence after 20 years comes despite the fighting raging across the countryside in the absence of a peace agreement.
Hameed Hakimi of Chatham House told Al Jazeera in Cambridge that the withdrawal process had shifted the power vacuum and violence around Kabul.
“The main immediate concern of the United States in my opinion is that as long as the Taliban does not attack it while it withdraws by September,” he said.
“As far as the Afghan government is concerned, they think that if they attack the Taliban, it would force them to come to some sort of negotiating table.”
A stark reminder of what remains arrived on Friday evening with a car bomb in Pul-e-Alam, south of the capital, killing at least 24 people and injuring 110 others.
US President Joe Biden is determined to end what he called “the war forever”, announcing last month that the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 US forces would be complete by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks .
“A horrific attack 20 years ago… can’t explain why we should stay there in 2021,” Biden said.
The Taliban have said the withdrawal of US troops must be completed by May 1, as agreed in last year’s deal with Washington, and that the fact that the troops were not fully out was a “violation.” manifest ”.
In a statement on Saturday, Taliban military spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that the passing of the May 1 deadline for a full withdrawal “opens the way for [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] moudjahidin to take any countermeasures it deems appropriate against the occupying forces ”.
However, he said fighters on the battlefield will wait for a decision from the leaders before launching attacks and that decision will be based on “the sovereignty, values and best interests of the country.”
Since the US Withdrawal Agreement was concluded, the Taliban have not directly engaged foreign troops, but insurgents have ruthlessly attacked government forces in the countryside and waged a murderous campaign in urban areas.
“Who are you killing?
The exit of American forces only exacerbated the fear felt by ordinary Afghans.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that government forces – which for months have waged most 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 to fight foreigners is now over, ”Ghani said in a speech this week.
Worst case analysis
Yet General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff of the United States, did not rule out utter chaos.
“In the worst-case analysis, 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 that goes with it.”
The US-led military assault on Afghanistan began in October 2001 as a result of the attacks of September 11.
Two decades later – after the deaths of nearly 2,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans – Biden said the final withdrawal was justified because US forces had now ensured that the country could not once again become a base for foreign attackers to plot against the West.