US troops in Afghanistan begin packing gear in pullout prep

Photo: AP In this 24 December 2017 photo, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff speaks during a ceremony on Christmas Eve at a US airfield in Bagram, north of Kabul.

The US military has begun shipping equipment and winding down contracts with local service providers ahead of the 1 May start of the final phase of its military pullout from Afghanistan, a US Defense Department official said Thursday.

The pullout under US President Joe Biden marks the end of America’s longest war after a 20-year military engagement. Currently, some 2,500 US soldiers and about 7,000 allied forces are still in Afghanistan.

In February last year, the US military began closing its smaller bases. In mid-April, the Biden administration announced that the final phase of the withdrawal would begin May 1 and be completed before 11 Septеmber.

Since then, the military has been shipping equipment and winding down local contracts for services such as trash pickup and maintenance work, the US official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations.

While preparations are under way, troops likely won’t begin to depart for a few weeks, he said, adding that “we won’t see a coming down of the (troop) numbers” until remaining bases close.

There have been indications that the pullout could be completed well before 11 September, which marks the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida terror attack on the US and the trigger for the US invasion of Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Germany’s Defense Ministry said discussions are underway among military planners with the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Kabul for a possible withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan as early as 4 July.

In the short term, America will likely increase its troop presence in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said last Friday. The additional troops would be in Afghanistan over the coming weeks and months to help with what the herculean task of wrapping up 20 years of war.

While much of the equipment headed back to the US will be shipped by air, the military will also use land routes through Pakistan and north through Central Asia, the Defense Department official said.

The US equipment that is neither shipped back to America nor given to the Afghan National Security forces will be sold to contractors, who will, in turn, sell it in the local markets.

“You’ll most likely start seeing it eventually showing up in bazaars as scrap,” said the official.

The Taliban, meanwhile, were non-committal when asked by the AP whether the insurgents would attack departing US and NATO troops. “It’s too early for these issues, nothing can be said about the future,” said Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem.

In a deal the Taliban signed last year with former President Donald Trump, the final US withdrawal deadline was set as 1 May. Under the agreement, the Taliban promised not to attack US and NATO troops but they also later promised “consequences” if Washington defied the 1 May deadline.

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