San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
U.S., NATO forces begin last phase of pullout from bases
KABUL — 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 expectetd by the end of summer.
President Biden had set May 1 as the official start of the withdrawal of the remaining forces — about 2,500 to 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 C17 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 expenses 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 endofsummer withdrawal date in midApril, 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 Qaeda perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks who lived under the protection of the country’s Taliban rulers. Two months later, the Taliban had been defeated and al Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Taliban leadership was still weighing its strategy.
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.”
The Taliban are at their strongest since being ousted in 2001. While mapping their gains and territorial holds is difficult, they are believed to hold sway or outright control over nearly half of Afghanistan.