KABUL, Afghanistan -- The final phase of ending America's "forever war" in Afghanistan after 20 years formally began Saturday, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO troops expected by the end of summer.
President Joe Biden had set May 1 as the official start of the withdrawal of the remaining forces -- 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 C-17 cargo planes.
The U.S. is estimated to have spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan in the past two decades, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which documents the hidden costs of the U.S. military engagement.
Defense department officials and diplomats told The Associated Press that the withdrawal has involved closing smaller bases over the past year. They said that since Biden announced the end-of-summer withdrawal date in mid-April, only about 60 military personnel had left the country.
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, 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.
Until now, the U.S. and NATO have received no promises from the Taliban that they won't attack troops during the pullout. In a response to AP questions, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the Taliban leadership was still weighing its strategy.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett tweeted late Saturday that there was some ineffective firing in the area of southern Kandahar air base, one of the U.S. military's largest bases. He also said U.S. forces had conducted "precision strikes" against missiles found aimed at the airfield in Kandahar.
"Kandahar Airfield received ineffective indirect fire this afternoon; no injury to personnel or damage to equipment," he tweeted, without attaching blame.
However, he also posted a video clip of Gen. Austin Miller, head of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, speaking to an Afghan journalist, in which he said "a return to violence would be ... senseless and tragic," but that coalition troops "have the military means to respond forcefully to any type of attacks."
The insurgent group continues to accuse Washington of breaching the deal it signed with the Trump administration 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 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. Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which were part of the agreement, quickly bogged down. On Friday, a truck bomb in eastern Logar province killed 21 people, many of them police and students.
Afghans have paid the highest price since 2001, with 47,245 civilians killed, according to the Costs of War project. Millions more have been displaced inside Afghanistan or have fled to Pakistan, Iran or Europe.
Afghanistan's security forces are expected to come under increasing pressure from the Taliban after the withdrawal if no peace agreement is reached in the interim, according to Afghan watchers.
Since the start of the war security forces have taken heavy losses, with estimates ranging from 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops killed. The Afghan military has been battered by corruption. The U.S. and NATO pay $4 billion a year to sustain the force.
Some 300,000 Afghan troops are on the books, although the actual number is believed to be lower. Commanders have been found to inflate the numbers to collect paychecks of so-called ghost soldiers, according to the U.S. watchdog monitoring Washington's spending in Afghanistan.
Still, the Afghan Defense Ministry and presidential palace have said Afghanistan's security forces are in good shape to defend against Taliban advances.
Last year was the only year U.S. and NATO troops did not suffer a loss. The Defense Department says 2,442 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded since 2001. It is estimated that more than 3,800 U.S. private-security contractors have been killed. The Pentagon does not track their deaths.
The conflict also has killed 1,144 personnel from other NATO countries.
The Taliban, meanwhile, are at their strongest since being ousted in 2001. While mapping their gains and territorial holds is difficult, they are believed to hold sway or outright control over nearly half of Afghanistan.
"We are telling the departing Americans ... you fought a meaningless war and paid a cost for that, and we also offered huge sacrifices for our liberation," Shaheen told the AP on Friday.
Striking a more conciliatory tone, he added: "If you ... open a new chapter of helping Afghans in reconstruction and rehabilitation of the country, the Afghans will appreciate that."
In the Afghan capital and throughout the country, there is a growing fear that chaos will follow the departure of the last foreign troops. After billions of dollars and decades of war, many Afghans wonder whether it was worth it.
"Violence has been at its peak ever since the coming of foreigners. Every day we witnessed suicide attacks and explosions," said Hashmat Ullah, an Afghan browsing a marketplace Saturday in central Kabul. He welcomed the final withdrawal.
After the Taliban's hard-line government collapsed in 2001, American leaders dismissed some senior militants' attempts to join the new Afghan political order, shunning a group that had isolated itself from the outside world, harbored al-Qaida and relegated women out of sight.
James Dobbins, who was leading diplomatic efforts to forge a new Afghan government after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, describes the refusal to entertain the Taliban leaders' overtures to cooperate or surrender as "a major blind spot."
"It was clearly a failure to recognize that the Taliban were an important element of Afghan society that could not be completely ignored or completely exterminated," he said.
Twenty years later, as the United States begins withdrawing its remaining military force and experts predict a Taliban return to power by way of force or political pact, officials caution that it is still unknown whether the group has moderated its rigid beliefs.
Whether a renewed Taliban regime, should one emerge, proves more humane and inclusive than it was in the past would be a crucial test of Biden's decision to end the United States' long military endeavor in Afghanistan.
Experts say the group, while unwavering in its desire to make Afghanistan an "Islamic society," has not defined a clear stance on how it would approach many issues, including freedom of expression, the rights of women and minorities and a future political structure -- either out of strategic ambiguity or because the group has not reached an internal consensus on those topics.
Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said he believes the Taliban are waiting to gauge their strength relative to other parties, including elements of the current Afghan government or warlords who might contend for power.
"We will start to know when the last soldier has left," he said of whether the Taliban have changed.
In a recent research paper, Ruttig laid out the mixed evidence of whether the Taliban's ideology and probable governing stance had evolved since 2001. The group, which previously banned TV and most music, has, for example, embraced the Internet and social media. It appears more open to facilitating foreign aid. But in other areas, such as political freedoms, it has shown little intent to embrace major change.
For many Americans, the Taliban's stance toward women will be a key litmus test. After taking over in the 1990s, the Taliban largely banned women from public life, and girls were kept home from school. Over the past two decades, women have slowly claimed a greater role in economic and political life.
According to a recently declassified assessment from the National Intelligence Council, slim turnover in the Taliban's leadership and the group's inflexible negotiating positions are among the factors that suggest it will "roll back much of the past two decades' progress" if it regains power.
"The Taliban's desires for foreign aid and legitimacy might marginally moderate its conduct over time," the assessment said. "However, in the early days of reestablishing its Emirate, the Taliban probably would focus on extending control on its own terms."
Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, said the group was "committed to women's rights, whether they are in terms of [access to] education or work. So no need to worry about their basic rights."
But experts said the Taliban's administration of areas it now controls may be the best indicator of its future actions. Even today, women are largely banned from working outside the home, except in education or medicine. Some provinces in the Taliban's territory don't have a single school for girls, while others allow them to study only through primary school.
The group also represses free speech among Afghans living under its rule and regularly uses beatings and imprisonment as punishment for minor infractions.
When asked whether this kind of rule would be implemented nationwide under a Taliban government, Shaheen said he expects "there will be a review by experts to cater to essential aspects of human rights," but any ruling would not deviate from Islamic law.
He appeared to acknowledge an expansion of access to education for women, saying "there will be need to adapt a decent uniform for girls at school and university level." There are no universities in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
CONCERN FOR GIRLS
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., citing a wave of assassinations of female activists and journalists, said the United States must do everything in its power to support the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.
"Afghan girls should have the opportunity to grow up in a world with the freedoms their mothers fought to secure," she said in a statement. "They are watching. We are watching."
As the Biden administration seeks to keep a faltering peace process alive, also unknown is what sort of future Afghan government the Taliban would accept. While officials say the group appears more willing to share power, it's not clear if it would seek to restore some form of its pre-2001 Islamic emirate, led by unelected clerics, or if it would accept a democratic system with elections and greater political freedoms.
Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, said Taliban leaders had made vague references to democracy but also expressed their goal of a "truly Islamic" form of government that would include Shariah law and would probably prioritize their religious norms.
"I would think they would be opposed to democracy, but they won't say that publicly," she said. "It's hard to tell if they're just buying time and hiding their objective, or if they have a different vision of representation and governance."
Speaking before lawmakers last week, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the promise of external funding and international recognition could act as an incentive for the Taliban to moderate its aims. The group's previous government was recognized by only a handful of nations.
"The Talibs say they are interested in not being a pariah and being welcomed," he said. "All I can say is that we have made it clear that if they do, they can end their prior status, there can be progress in relationship with us and with others. But if they don't, the very thing that they say they do not want to happen will be inevitable."
Information for this article was contributed by Kathy Gannon and Tameem Akhgar of The Associated Press; and by Missy Ryan, Susannah George and Sharif Hassan of The Washington Post.