Final US military withdrawal from Afghanistan formally under way

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The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan after 20 years is formally under way, with the withdrawal of the last US and Nato troops due to be completed by the end of summer.

US president Joe Biden had set May 1 as the official start of the withdrawal of the remaining forces — about 2,500-3,500 US troops and 7,000 Nato soldiers.

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

US soldiers
US soldiers in Helmand province, in 2009 (AP)

In recent weeks, the military has been flying out equipment on massive C-17 cargo planes.

The US is estimated to have spent more than two trillion dollars (£1.44 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 US military engagement.

US defence department officials and diplomats told The Associated Press 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.

Baghram airfield
A ceremony at a US airfield in Bagram, north of Kabul, in 2017 (AP)

Two months later, the Taliban had been defeated and al-Qaida 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 US Navy Seals killed bin Laden in his hideout in neighbouring Pakistan.

Since then, he said, al-Qaida 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.

Until now, the US and Nato have received no promises from the Taliban that they will not attack troops during the pullout.

In a response to AP questions, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the Taliban leadership is still mulling over its strategy.

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 deal, the US said it would have all troops out by May 1.

Joe Biden
US president Joe Biden specified May 1 as the formal start of the final withdrawal (AP)

On Friday, a truck bomb in eastern 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 experts.

Since the start of the war they have taken heavy losses, with estimates ranging from 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops killed.

Afghanistan military
Afghan National Army service personnel march during their graduation ceremony (AP)

Some 300,000 Afghan troops are on the books, although the actual number is believed to be lower.

Commanders have been found to inflate the numbers to collect paycheques of so-called “ghost soldiers”, according to the US watchdog monitoring Washington’s spending in Afghanistan.

Last year was the only year US and Nato troops did not suffer a loss. The US defence department says 2,442 US troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded since 2001.

It is estimated that more than 3,800 US private security contractors have been killed. The Pentagon does not track their deaths.

A burnt out car
Afghans watch a civilian vehicle burnt after being shot by US forces after an attack near the Bagram Air Base (AP)

The Taliban, meanwhile, are at their strongest since being ousted in 2001. While mapping their gains and territorial strongholds is difficult, they are believed to hold sway or outright control over nearly half of Afghanistan.

“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,” Mr 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.”

In announcing the departure, Mr Biden said waiting for ideal conditions to leave would consign America to an indefinite stay.

In the Afghan capital and throughout the country, there is a growing fear that chaos will follow the departure of the last foreign troops.

After billions of dollars and decades of war, many Afghans wonder at whether it was worth it.

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