Twenty years after US and UK forces invaded the South Asian nation in a bid to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, it was reported the last of 2,500 US forces still based there were finally leaving.
The invasion, part of George W Bush’s so-called “war on terror”, resulted in the deaths of more than 3,500 coalition forces, and an unknown number of Taliban fighters, as well as thousands of Afghan civilians.
For all the blood spent, and devastation wrought, large swathes of the nation remain in Taliban control.
Meanwhile, Bin Laden was located holed-up in a compound in Pakistan, a purported US ally, where he was killed in a raid by US special forces in 2011.
“A drawdown is underway,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “While these actions will initially result in increased forces levels, we remain committed to having all of US military personnel out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2020.”
At its peak in 2011, the US had around 100,000 soldiers based in the country. CNN was the first to report that the remaining 2,500 troops – the smallest number in two decades – had started the process of leaving.
It said that less than 100 troops and their equipment had left the country, largely by aircraft, following Joe Biden’s order to begin the process no later than May 1.
The decision – which was opposed by US hawks in Washington DC – was negotiated by Donald Trump, and there had been some speculation Mr Biden would decide to reverse that decision.
But earlier this month, in a speech at the White House, Mr Biden said the time had come for the troops to return.
“War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” Mr Biden said. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives.”
He added: “It is time to end the forever war.”
His words echoed those of Mr Trump, who had engaged in negotiations with the Taliban, about the future of Afghanistan, and the removal of US forces. A deal was signed in February 2020 in Qatar, by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar.
“I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show that we’re not all wasting time,” Mr Trump said in Washington hours after the agreement was concluded. “If bad things happen, we’ll go back.”
The move by the US has been echoed by Britain. While the UK withdrew all regular troops from Iraq in 2011, around 750 soldiers remained in Afghanistan to train Afghan forces.
British defence secretary Ben Wallace said this month any attacked on its soldiers as they prepared to leave would be “met with a forceful response”. At least 450 British soldiers have lost their lives there over the past two decades.
“The people of Afghanistan deserve a peaceful and stable future,” said Mr Wallace. “As we draw down, the security of our people currently serving in Afghanistan remains our priority and we have been clear that attacks on Allied troops will be met with a forceful response.”
There was no immediate response to inquiries from the Pentagon.
But long-time peace activist Medea Benjamin, founder of the group Code Pink, told The Independent she welcomed the news.
“I’m delighted to hear that – it’s better late than never, but it’s important that it’s happening,” she said.
“[The Afghan civilians] have been through decades of war. I’ve been to Afghanistan many times, and you meet people who have suffered from one conflict or another for decades. It’s intergenerational now. And it’s devastating that the US presence has continued that trajectory.”
Ms Benjamin said while she welcomed news of US troops being withdrawn, it was also important to continue to monitor the actions of private military contractors who may remain in the country, or possible air strikes by the US.
As with Iraq, there is no agreed upon figure for the number of civilians in Afghanistan who have lost their lives during the past 20 years.
A report published earlier this year by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA) documented some 8,820 civilian casualties, including 3,035 deaths and 5,785 injuries in 2020. That represented about 15 per cent less than in 2019.
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