The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan after 20 years has formally begun, with the withdrawal of the last US 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.
Before Saturday, the official day of the start of the pullout, the military has been taking inventory, deciding what is shipped back to the US, 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 US 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.
Afghans have paid the highest price, 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.
The US 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 US 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 US 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.
The insurgent group continues to accuse Washington of breaching the deal it signed with Biden’s predecessor more than a year ago. In that deal, the US said it would have all troops out by May 1.
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 whether it was worth it.