US formally begins withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan

The United States formally begins withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan Saturday, bringing its longest war nearer to an end but also heralding an uncertain future for a country in the tightening grip of an emboldened Taliban.

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 Taliban 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 on Saturday for any possible attacks on retreating American troops. The prospect of an end of 20 years of US presence comes despite fighting raging across the countryside in the absence of a peace deal. The Taliban have warned they are no longer bound by an agreement not to target international troops.

Afghan National Security Council adviser Hamdullah Mohib said the Taliban “may choose war” in an attempt to grab power after US troops fully exit, but security forces were ready to face the fighters. Under a deal signed last year between the militants and then-President Donald Trump, foreign forces were to have left by 1 May while the Taliban held off attacking international troops.