Miami Herald (Sunday)

U.S., NATO make formal start of Afghan pullout’s last phase

- BY KATHY GANNON Associated Press

KABUL, AFGHANISTA­N

The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanista­n after 20 years formally began 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.

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.

Defense department officials and diplomats told The Associated Press the withdrawal has involved closing smaller bases over the last year. They said that since 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 Oct. 7, 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.

In his withdrawal announceme­nt last month, Biden said the initial mission was accomplish­ed a decade ago when U.S.

Navy SEALS killed bin Laden in his hideout in neighborin­g 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.

Until now the U.S. 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.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett tweeted late Saturday that there was some ineffectiv­e firing in the area of southern Kandahar air base, one of the U.S. military’s largest bases. He also said U.S. forces had conducted “precision strikes” against missiles found aimed at the airfield in Kandahar.

“Kandahar Airfield received ineffectiv­e indirect fire this afternoon; no injury to personnel or damage to equipment,” he tweeted, without attaching blame.

However, he also posted a video clip of Gen. Austin Miller, head of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanista­n, speaking to an Afghan journalist in which he said “a return to violence would be one senseless and tragic,” but that coalition troops “have the military means to respond forcefully to any type of attacks.”

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 U.S. said it would have all troops out by May 1.

In a statement 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) 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.”

Violence has spiked 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.

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.

Since the start of the war they have taken heavy losses, with estimates ranging from 66,000 to

69,000 Afghan troops killed. The Afghan military has been battered by corruption. The U.S. and NATO pay $4 billion a year to sustain the force.

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 paychecks of so-called “ghost soldiers,” according to the U.S. watchdog monitoring Washington’s spending in Afghanista­n.

Still, the Afghan defense ministry and presidenti­al palace in separate statements have said that Afghanista­n’s security forces are in good shape to defend against Taliban advances.

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

 ?? MASSOUD HOSSAINI AP file ?? U.S. Marines watch during the change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field in Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanista­n in April 2018. The final phase of ending America’s ‘forever war’ in
Afghanista­n formally began Saturday, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO troops by the end of summer.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI AP file U.S. Marines watch during the change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field in Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanista­n in April 2018. The final phase of ending America’s ‘forever war’ in Afghanista­n formally began Saturday, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO troops by the end of summer.
 ?? SAM DEAN AP ?? Girl Scouts Alice Goerlich, right, and Gracie Walker pose with a Wing delivery drone in Christians­burg, Virginia. The company is testing drone delivery of Girl Scout cookies in the community to see if it’s feasible for more widespread use.
SAM DEAN AP Girl Scouts Alice Goerlich, right, and Gracie Walker pose with a Wing delivery drone in Christians­burg, Virginia. The company is testing drone delivery of Girl Scout cookies in the community to see if it’s feasible for more widespread use.

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