The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan after 20 years formally began on Saturday, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO troops by the end of summer.
President Biden had set May 1 as the official start of the withdrawal of 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 longest war in American history has cost more than $2 trillion and tens of thousands of lives. More than 2,400 service members were killed during the nearly 20-year conflict, and more than 20,000 were wounded.
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, Mr. 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.
The Taliban continues to accuse Washington of breaching the deal it signed with Mr. 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. On Friday, 21 people were killed and as many as 90 others were injured in a suicide bombing south of Kabul. The car bomb struck outside a hostel, and Afghan officials say high school students were among those killed, CBS News’ Charlie D’Agata reports.
Afghans have paid the highest price since 2001, with more than 60,000 members of the Afghan security services killed. Tens of thousands of civilians have died and millions more have been displaced inside Afghanistan or to Pakistan, Iran and Europe.