U.S. begins final phase of Afghan pullout

The military is deciding on what to ship back, what to hand over to the Afghan forces ahead of Sept. 11.

May 01, 2021 09:57 pm | Updated November 30, 2021 06:39 pm IST - Kabul

Constant threats:  Security personnel and residents at the site of a car bomb attack in  Logar province on May 1.

Constant threats: Security personnel and residents at the site of a car bomb attack in Logar province on May 1.

The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan after 20 years formally began on Saturday, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO troops by the end of summer.

President Joe Biden had set May 1 as the official start of the withdrawal of the remaining forces — about 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops and about 7,000 NATO soldiers. He had set September 11 as the deadline for withdrawal.

Even before Saturday, the herculean task of packing up had begun.

The military has been taking inventory, deciding what is shipped back to the U.S., what is handed to the Afghan security forces and what is sold as junk in Afghanistan’s markets. In recent weeks, the military has been flying out equipment on massive C-17 cargo planes.

The U.S. is estimated to have spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan in the past two decades, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which documents the hidden costs of the U.S. military engagement.

According to defence department officials and diplomats, the withdrawal has involved closing smaller bases over the last year.

They said that since Mr. Biden announced the end-of-summer withdrawal date in mid-April, only roughly 60 military personnel had left the country.

The U.S. and its NATO allies went into Afghanistan together on October 7, 2001 to hunt the al-Qaeda perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks who lived under the protection of the country’s Taliban rulers. Two months later, the Taliban had been defeated and al-Qaeda fighters and their leader, Osama bin Laden, were on the run.

In his withdrawal announcement last month, Mr. Biden said the initial mission was accomplished a decade ago when U.S. Navy SEALS killed bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan. Since then, al-Qaeda has been degraded, while the terrorist threat has “metastasised” into a global phenomenon that is not contained by keeping thousands of troops in one country, he said.

The insurgent group continues to accuse Washington of breaching the deal it signed with Mr. Biden’s predecessor more than a year ago. In that agreement, the U.S. said it would have all troops out by May 1.

In a statement on Saturday, Taliban military spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the passing of the May 1 deadline for a complete withdrawal “opened the way for (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) Mujahideen to take every counteraction it deems appropriate against the occupying forces.”

However, he said fighters on the battlefield will wait for a decision from the leadership before launching any attacks and that decision will be based on “the sovereignty, values and higher interests of the country.”

Mounting toll

Violence has spiked in Afghanistan since the February 2020 deal was signed. Peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government quickly bogged down. On Friday, a truck bomb in Logar province killed 21 people, many of them police and students.

Afghans have paid the highest price since 2001, with 47,245 civilians killed, according to the Costs of War project. Millions more have been displaced inside Afghanistan or have fled to Pakistan, Iran and Europe.

Afghanistan’s security forces are expected to come under increasing pressure from the Taliban after the withdrawal if no peace agreement is reached in the interim, according to Afghan watchers.

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