US commander in Afghanistan says steps for withdrawal have begun

US army general says foreign military bases in Afghanistan will be gradually handed over to Afghan forces.

In this file photo, NATO soldiers take cover from dust and debris from a Chinook helicopter landing during a military exercise in Logar province, Afghanistan, on November 30, 2017 [Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

The commander of foreign military forces in Afghanistan says “local action” has begun as part of the planned withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, about two weeks after US President Joe Biden announced all US forces would leave by September 11.

US Army General Scott Miller said on Sunday that foreign military bases would be gradually handed over to Afghan forces.

“All our forces are now preparing to retrograde. Officially the notification date will be the 1st of May, but at the same time as we start taking local actions, we have already begun that,” said Miller, who has commanded US forces and the NATO Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan since 2018.

“As we retrograde to zero US forces, we will turn over the (military) bases primarily to the (Afghan) Ministry of Defense and other Afghan forces,” he told reporters in the capital, Kabul.

Biden framed his plan to withdraw some 2,500 remaining US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, around a need to end the US’s longest war.

“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan,” Biden said on April 14. “I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”

The US president nevertheless pushed back a May 1 deadline for the US troop withdrawal that was reached by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and the Taliban during negotiations last year.

After Biden’s announcement, the Taliban reiterated its call for all foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 1, the date stipulated in the group’s so-called Doha agreement with the Trump administration.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seeks the withdrawal of all foreign forces from our homeland on the date specified in the Doha Agreement,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter.

“If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit the country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those who failed to comply with the agreement will be held responsible,” Mujahid added.

US Army General Scott Miller said foreign military bases in Afghanistan would be gradually handed over to Afghan forces [File: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

Some observers have raised concerns that Afghanistan could see an uptick in violence around the withdrawal, urging the Taliban – which ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 – to remain committed to a negotiated peace settlement.

Miller said on Sunday that foreign forces in Afghanistan would have “the military means and capability to fully protect themselves during the ongoing retrograde and will support the Afghan security forces”.

“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Taliban members with the Taliban Political Commission, and I’ve told them a return to violence, an effort to force a military decision, would be a tragedy for Afghanistan and the Afghan people,” he said.

About 7,000 NATO forces are also in Afghanistan. Last week, Germany’s defence ministry said discussions were under way among military planners with the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Kabul for a possible withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan as early as July 4.

Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Turkey and Pakistan this week urged the Afghan Taliban to recommit to reaching a negotiated peace deal.

A US-backed Afghan peace conference set to be held in Istanbul on Saturday was postponed after the Taliban refused to participate.

The foreign ministers in a joint statement underlined “the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire” to end the violence and “provide a conducive atmosphere” for peace talks.

They “called on all parties, in particular the Taliban to reaffirm their commitment for achieving an inclusive negotiated settlement leading to lasting peace in Afghanistan desired by the Afghan people, the region and the international community”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies