By virtue of missing an agreed Saturday deadline for leaving Afghanistan, international forces that are there and working on being gone in a few months have “opened the way” for the Taliban to retaliate against them, the militants say.
The formal withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces began on Saturday and is due to be completed by Sept. 11, although military equipment had already started leaving the country weeks ago.
After 20 years of international troops’ presence, the withdrawal leaves Afghanistan to a potentially bleak future amid rising attacks by Taliban insurgents.
The Taliban said on Saturday that the withdrawal was too late, as the deal it struck with the U.S. last year called for it to be completed by Saturday.
The “agreed upon May 1st deadline has passed,” the Taliban said in a statement tweeted in English. That deal was struck between the Taliban and the previous U.S. administration. U.S. President Joe Biden recently unilaterally pushed the withdrawal date back to September 11.
“This violation in principle has opened the way for IEA [the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the name used for the country by the Taliban] mujahidin to take every counteraction it deems appropriate against the occupying forces,” it said.
The group said that their fighters would now await a decision from their leadership “in light of the sovereignty, values and higher interests of the country.”
Almost 10,000 NATO soldiers from the Resolute Support training mission — including 2,500 soldiers from the U.S. and around 1,100 from Germany, the two biggest contingents — are due to leave the country by Sept. 11.
NATO said that the security of the troops during the withdrawal would be the highest priority, which is why it refused to give details about the withdrawal operation. According to the latest data, troops from 36 NATO countries and partners had forces in Afghanistan.
There are fears the Taliban might attack the forces during the withdrawal. A NATO official said any attacks would be met with a forceful response.
The German military said earlier this month it was planning a more rapid withdrawal, perhaps by the start of July, but a date has not been confirmed.
The German Defence Ministry said that there was a symbolic handover of keys in Camp Pamir, in Kunduz, this week, as German forces ceded control of the part of the camp they had used to Afghan forces. The ministry tweeted that Germany was departing Afghanistan with pride, having accomplished its troop training mission.
But military analysts say there is a good chance threat levels will rise in the coming months as the withdrawal progresses. The U.S. Army has set aside heavy weapons to provide protection, while Germany has sent in special commando team for the same purpose.
The withdrawal of the international forces will be a test for the Afghan security forces, which will have to defend the territory it currently controls and support the government without direct international support.
Afghan troops watching the withdrawal expressed trepidation. One soldier in Kabul said he didn’t have “a particularly good feeling” about the decision.
The soldier said only special forces were truly equipped to provide the necessary protection and that most members of the Afghan forces had not really believed that the U.S. forces would actually leave.
But he said it was also clear that the Afghan forces would have to fight for their country now, “with or without the Americans.” But he also expressed worries that munitions and weapons would start disappearing. He said some colleagues are openly preparing for a civil war.
National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib told a Saturday press conference that the international forces’ departure was no reason for worry, since the country’s forces are no longer “very” dependent on international assistance.
Afghan forces would carry out 96% of operations that are currently done. He added that there had been assurances of financial support from the departing allies.
Afghan civilians seemed to have mixed feelings about the departure. According to local media reports, some are ready to celebrate Afghan independence once the foreign troops are gone, while others say the departure leaves them in a state of abject fear.
Many well-off Afghans say they want to leave the country, fearing the return of the Taliban, which headed a repressive government before the U.S. occupation, with few rights for women and no tolerance for what it considered Western excesses, like contemporary music and clothing.
China, Pakistan, Russia and the U.S. issued a statement on Friday calling for the Taliban not to disrupt the departure and to find a way for the country’s conflicting sides to reach agreement. They said they would not recognize a government installed by force.
However, the Taliban has taken few steps to engage with the central government, even though reaching a deal between the two was one of the requirements for the U.S.’ original plan to depart by May 1.
“A return to violence would be one senseless & tragic. But make no mistake, we have the military means to respond forcefully to any type of attacks against the coalition and the military means to support the Afg security forces. That would be a mistake to move in that direction,” U.S. Army spokesperson in Afghanistan, Colonel Sonny Leggett, tweeted.
But the violence continued in the country on Friday and Saturday, with a car bombing and a blast inside an Afghan base killing over two dozen people.
Later on Saturday, there was indirect fire on Kandahar airfield in the south of Afghanistan, where some U.S. forces are still stationed.
“US forces conducted a precision strike on Saturday evening, destroying additional rockets aimed at the airfield,” a U.S. military spokesperson in Kabul tweeted later.
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