Afghanistan: the United States opens the last phase of its withdrawal

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The United States officially begins on Saturday the withdrawal of its last soldiers from Afghanistan, which when completed will spell the end of a 20-year war for them, but will open a period of great uncertainty for a country under the growing influence of the United States. Taliban.

In fact, the withdrawal process is already underway, according to American officials in Afghanistan, and the date of May 1 is above all symbolic. This was the deadline chosen during the agreement signed in February 2020 in Qatar with the Taliban by the former administration of Donald Trump, confirming this withdrawal.

In recent days, the sky over Kabul and the nearby Bagram air base has been more often than usual filled with American helicopters, tasked with preparing for this great departure, which will take place by September 11. , date of the 20th anniversary of the 2001 attacks.

NATO allies on Thursday began withdrawing contingents from the “Resolute Support” mission, which must be done in a coordinated manner with the Americans.

Afghanistan: the United States opens the last phase of its withdrawal

Afghan security forces were on high alert on Saturday fearing attacks on US forces as they pulled out.

“The Taliban could escalate violence,” acting Interior Minister Hayatullah Hayat told police chiefs, according to an audio clip released to reporters.

Acting Afghan Defense Minister Zia Yasin said US and Allied troops would be leaving bases across the country to assemble at Bagram, the largest US base in Afghanistan. Then “they will go to their respective countries,” he told reporters.

President Joe Biden had confirmed in mid-April the departure of the 2,500 soldiers still present in Afghanistan. “The time has come to end America’s longest war,” he said, believing that the objective of the intervention, which was to prevent Afghanistan from once again serving as a base for attacks on his country, had been filled.

For their part, the Taliban felt that the withdrawal should have been completed on May 1 and that the maintenance of troops after that date was a “clear violation” of the agreement with Washington.

“This in principle opens the way for our fighters to take appropriate action against the invading forces,” Mohammad Naeem, a spokesperson for the group, told AFP.

Chaos not excluded

The United States intervened in Afghanistan in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the New York Twin Towers and the Pentagon. They drove the Taliban from power, accused of having hosted the nebula jihadist Al-Qaeda responsible for the attacks, before getting bogged down.

Afghanistan: the United States opens the last phase of its withdrawal

At the height of their presence, in 2010-2011, some 100,000 American soldiers were deployed in the country. Over 2,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed in this conflict.

Since the signing of the Doha agreement, the Taliban have refrained from directly attacking foreign forces. But they have been ruthless with government troops, whom they constantly harass in the countryside, while terrorizing large cities with targeted attacks.

The announcement of the Americans’ departure has only exacerbated the fear of many Afghans, who fear that the Taliban will return to power and impose the same fundamentalist regime as when they ruled the country between 1996 and 2001.

“Everyone is afraid of going back to the dark days of the Taliban era,” Mena Nowrozi, a private radio worker in Kabul, told AFP. “The Taliban are still the same, they haven’t changed. The United States should have stayed at least one or two more years ”.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asserts that government troops, which for several months have been fighting alone on the ground – but sometimes with American air support – are “fully capable” of resisting the insurgents.

He also wants to believe that the American withdrawal means that the Taliban have no reason to continue fighting. “Who are you killing? Who are you destroying? It is now the end of your pretext to kill foreigners, ”he said this week in a speech.

But the US chief of staff, General Mark Milley, admitted Wednesday that he could not rule out the possibility of total chaos. “In the worst case scenario, we have a collapse of the Afghan government, a collapse of the Afghan army, we have a civil war, we have the humanitarian catastrophe that goes with it, then the potential return of Al-Qaeda.”

Abdul Malik, a policeman from Kandahar (south), one of the Taliban’s historic strongholds, told AFP that the armed forces were ready. “We will do our best to defend our soil.”

There is no guarantee that the Taliban will not attack US or NATO troops during their withdrawal. If they did, it would be “to bleed the nose of a beaten enemy and to humiliate him even more”, underlines the independent expert Nishank Motwani.

For Andrew Watkins, analyst at the International Crisis Group, the coming weeks will allow the Afghan army and the Taliban “to assess their adversary without the additional factor that was the United States”.