The United States formally began withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan on Saturday, bringing its longest war nearer to an end but also heralding an uncertain future for a country in the tightening grip of an emboldened Taliban.
US officials on the ground said the withdrawal is a work in progress – and May 1 is just a continuation – but Washington has made an issue of the date because it is a deadline agreed with the Taliban in 2020 to complete the pullout.
The skies above Kabul and nearby Bagram airbase were buzzing with more US helicopter activity than usual as the withdrawal geared up, following the start on Thursday of a concurrent NATO drawdown.
Afghan security forces were on high alert on Saturday for any possible attacks on retreating American troops.
“The Americans will formally begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan starting May 1 and the Taliban might increase the violence,” Acting Interior Minister Hayatullah Hayat told top police commanders, according to an audio clip given to reporters.
Afghan National Security Council adviser Hamdullah Mohib said the Taliban “may choose war” in an attempt to grab power after US troops fully exit, but security forces were ready to face the fighters.
The prospect of an end to the US presence after 20 years comes despite fighting raging across the countryside in the absence of a peace deal.
Hameed Hakimi of Chatham House told Al Jazeera from Cambridge the withdrawal process has been shifting the power vacuum and violence around Kabul.
“The main immediate concern of the US in my understanding is that as far as the Taliban don’t attack them while they are pulling out between now and September,” he said.
“As far as the Afghan government is concerned, they believe if they attack the Taliban this would force them to come to some kind of a negotiating table.”
A stark reminder of what remains came late Friday with a car bomb in Pul-e-Alam, south of the capital, killing at least 24 people and wounding 110 more.
US President Joe Biden is determined to end what he called “the forever war”, announcing last month the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 American forces would be complete by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
“A horrific attack 20 years ago … cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021,” said Biden.
The Taliban said the US troop withdrawal was to be completed by May 1 as agreed in last year’s accord with Washington, and it was a “clear violation” that the troops were not fully out.
In a statement on 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”.
Since the US withdrawal deal was struck the Taliban have not directly engaged foreign troops, but insurgents have mercilessly attacked government forces in the countryside and waged a deadly campaign in urban areas.
‘Who are you killing?’
The exit of US forces has only exacerbated the fear felt by ordinary Afghans.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists government forces – which for months have carried out most of the ground fighting against the Taliban – are “fully capable” of keeping the Taliban fighters at bay.
He said the pullout also means the Taliban has no reason to fight.
“Who are you killing? What are you destroying? Your pretext of fighting the foreigners is now over,” Ghani said in a speech this week.
Still, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has not ruled out total chaos.
“On the worst-case analysis, you have a potential collapse of the government, a potential collapse of the military,” he said earlier this week.
“You have a civil war and all the humanitarian catastrophe that goes with it.”
The US-led military onslaught in Afghanistan began in October 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Two decades later – after the death of almost 2,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans – Biden said the final withdrawal was justified as US forces had now made sure the country cannot again become a base for foreign attackers to plot against the West.