KABUL: Afghan former interpreters for the US and NATO forces gather during a demonstration in downtown Kabul on Friday, on the eve of the beginning of Washington's formal troop withdrawal. - AFP

KABUL: The United States formally begins withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan yesterday, bringing its longest war nearer to an end but also heralding an uncertain future for a country in the tightening grip of an emboldened Taleban. 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 Taleban 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 Thursday of a concurrent NATO withdrawal.

Afghan security forces were on high alert yesterday for any possible attacks on retreating US troops. "The Americans will formally begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan starting May 1 and the Taleban 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 Taleban "may choose war" in an attempt to grab power after US troops fully exit, but security forces were ready to face the insurgents.

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 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 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 Taleban 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. "This in principle opens the way for our mujahideen to take appropriate action against the invading forces," Mohammad Naeem, a Taleban spokesman told AFP, adding that the group was awaiting orders from its leaders. Since the US withdrawal deal was struck the Taleban have not directly engaged foreign troops, but insurgents have mercilessly attacked government forces in the countryside and waged a terror campaign in urban areas.

The exit of US forces has only exacerbated the fear felt by ordinary Afghans. "Everyone is scared that we might go back to the dark days of the Taleban era," said Mena Nowrozi, who works at a private radio station in Kabul. "The Taleban are still the same; they have not changed. The US should have extended their presence by at least a year or two," she told AFP.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that government forces-which for months have carried out most of the ground fighting against the Taleban-are "fully capable" of keeping the insurgents at bay. He said the pullout also means the Taleban have 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.

Worst-case analysis

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." Police officer Abdul Malik from the former insurgent bastion of Kandahar said they were prepared. "We have to take care of our homeland... We will do our best to defend our soil," he told AFP.

The US-led military onslaught in Afghanistan began in October 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Two decades later, and after the death of almost 2,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans, Biden says the final withdrawal was justified as US forces had now made sure the country cannot again become a base for foreign jihadists to plot against the West. Concerns are high that the Taleban might yet strike at retreating US forces, and in the southern province of Kandahar-where the foes used to clash regularly-security sources say several areas are laden with explosives planted by the insurgents.

"If the Taleban attack retreating US or allied forces, it would be to bloody the nose of a defeated enemy and to humiliate it further," said Afghanistan specialist Nishank Motwani. Andrew Watkins, of the International Crisis Group, said the coming months would see the situation become a more purely local conflict. "The United States and its NATO partners are stepping back and giving the two primary sides of this conflict... their first instance to fight with and assess their opponents without the extra factor of the United States," he said. -AFP