US, NATO military begin today their final withdrawal from Afghanistan

After billions of dollars and decades of war, many Afghans fear of even greater chaos now and wonder at whether it was worth it

Photo: AP In this Sept. 11, 2011 file photo, a US Army soldier walks past an American Flag hanging at Afghanistan in preparation for a ceremony commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks

The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan after 20 years formally began Saturday, with the withdrawal of about 2,500-3,500 US troops and about 7,000 NATO soldiers. The process of withdrawing the remaining forces should be completed by the end of summer, but the herculean task of packing up had already begun.

As reported by AP, the military has been taking inventory, deciding what is shipped back to the US, 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, as well.

The US and its NATO allies went into Afghanistan together on 7 October, 2001 to hunt the al-Qaida 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-Qaida fighters and their leader, Osama bin Laden, were on the run.

However, the war has continued with Afghans having 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. As the Brown University project outlines, during that time the US is estimated to have spent more than $2trn and along with NATO it keeps paying $4bn a year to sustain the force.

Furthermore, last year was the only year US and NATO troops did not suffer a loss. The Defence Department says 2,442 US troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded since 2001. It is estimated that over 3,800 US private security contractors have been also killed, although the Pentagon does not track their deaths.

The conflict also has killed 1,144 personnel from NATO countries.

In his withdrawal announcement last month, Biden thus said that sacrificing the lives of the American soldiers is no longer needed since the initial mission was accomplished a decade ago when US Navy Seals killed bin Laden in his hideout in neighbouring Pakistan. Since then, al-Qaida has been degraded, while the terrorist threat has “metastasized” into a global phenomenon that is not contained by keeping thousands of troops in one country, he said.

Since Biden announced the end-of-summer withdrawal date in mid-April, however, US and NATO have received no promises from the Taliban that they won’t attack troops during the pullout. In a response to AP questions, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the Taliban leadership was still mulling over its strategy, since the insurgent group continues to accuse Washington of breaching the deal it signed with Biden’s predecessor more than a year ago. In that agreement, the US said it would already have all troops out by 1 May.

In a statement Saturday, Taliban military spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the passing of the 1 May deadline for a complete withdrawal “opened the way for (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) mujahidin 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.”

“We are telling the departing Americans ... you fought a meaningless war and paid a cost for that and we also offered huge sacrifices for our liberation,” Shaheen told the AP on Friday.

Striking a more conciliatory tone, he added: “If you ... open a new chapter of helping Afghans in reconstruction and rehabilitation of the country, the Afghans will appreciate that.”

Yet, in the Afghan capital and throughout the country, there is a growing fear that chaos will follow the departure of the last foreign troops. Violence has alreadyspiked in Afghanistan since the February 2020 deal was signed. Peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, which were part of the agreement, quickly bogged down. On Friday, a truck bomb in eastern Logar province killed 21 people, many of them police and students.

This means 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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