KABUL: 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 emboldened Taliban.

US officials on the ground say the withdrawal is already 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 have been buzzing with more US helicopter activity than usual as the pullout gears up, following the start on Thursday of a concurrent Nato withdrawal.

Afghan security forces were on high alert for any possible Taliban attacks on retreating American troops.

The US military said an airfield in the southern province of Kandahar where it has a base “received ineffective indirect fire” on Saturday afternoon that caused no damages.

“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 Acting Defence Minister Zia Yasin said US and allied troops would be leaving their bases and would gather at Bagram, the biggest American base in Afghanistan.

From there “they will go to their respective countries”, Yasin told reporters.

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.

A stark reminder of what remains came late on Friday with a car bomb in Pul-i-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 that 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,” he said.

The Taliban said the US troop withdrawal was to be completed by May 1 as agreed in last year’s accord with Washington, and warned it was a “clear violation” that the troops were not fully out.

“This in principle opens the way for our mujahideen to take appropriate action against the invading forces,” Mohammad Naeem, a Taliban spokesman said, adding that the group was awaiting orders from its leaders.

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2021

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