The United States formally begins withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan Saturday, bringing its longest war nearer to an end.
US officials on the ground say the withdrawal is already a work in progress and May 1 is just a continuation but Washington has made an issue of the date because it is a deadline agreed with the Taliban in 2020 to complete the pullout.
The skies above Kabul and nearby Bagram airbase have been buzzing with more US helicopter activity than usual as the pullout gears up, following the start Thursday of a concurrent NATO withdrawal. Afghan security forces were on high alert Saturday 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 Interior Minister Hayatullah Hayat told top police commanders late on Friday, according to an audio clip given to reporters.
“I order all of you to increase the checkpoints in cities and carry out search operations on entry gates.” The prospect of an end of 20 years of US presence comes despite fighting raging across the countryside in the absence of a peace deal.
A stark reminder of what remains came late Friday with a car 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 American forces would be complete by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Since the US withdrawal deal was struck the Taliban have not directly engaged foreign troops.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that government forces who for months have carried out most of the ground fighting against the Taliban are “fully capable” of keeping them at bay. He said the pullout also means the Taliban have no reason to fight.
Two decades later, and after the death of almost 2,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans, Biden says the final withdrawal was justified as US forces had now made sure the country cannot again become a base for militants to plot against the West.
“The United States and its NATO partners are stepping back and giving the two primary sides of this conflict… their first instance to fight with and assess their opponents without the extra factor of the United States,” he said.