KABUL, Afghanistan 

Reactions in Afghanistan have been mixed towards the US decision to withdraw all of its forces right before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that spurred the invasion of the country.  

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden announced that the withdrawal will begin on May 1 in line with an agreement President Donald Trump’s administration made with the Taliban, but some US troops will remain to protect American diplomats.

Biden said American diplomatic and humanitarian efforts would continue in Afghanistan and that the US would support peace efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home,” he said in a televised address.

Taliban rebuke delayed withdrawal

Hours after Biden wrapped up his speech in the Treaty Room, the same location from which President George W. Bush had announced the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban delivered a detailed reaction.

“As the withdrawal of [foreign] forces is being delayed by several months and will be completed before September…This decision is a clear violation of the Doha Agreement and non-compliance with its commitments,” said the group in a statement, referring to the agreement signed in February 2020 that called for the withdrawal by May 2021.

“The Islamic Emirate [Taliban] urges America and all occupying countries to stop making excuses for prolonging the war and to withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan immediately,” the statement said, while stressing that the group “will under no circumstance ever relent on complete independence and the establishment of a pure Islamic system and remains committed to finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem following the complete and certain end of occupation.”

The Taliban had previously declined to attend the forthcoming Istanbul conference on peace in Afghanistan scheduled for April 24.

“Until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate will not participate in any conference that shall make decisions about Afghanistan,” tweeted the group’s spokesman Mohammad Naeem on Tuesday, before the withdrawal plan was announced by the US.

He told Anadolu Agency on Wednesday that there are no changes in the Taliban’s plans in regard to the Istanbul conference even after the announcement of the troop withdrawal.

“We have already declared our stance in this regard,” he added.

Afghan govt ‘respects’ withdrawal move

Hours before going live with his speech, Biden spoke by phone with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and affirmed “US support for continued development, humanitarian and security assistance in Afghanistan and for a political settlement that lets the Afghan people live in peace,” said the White House.

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the US decision to withdraw its troops and will work with US partners to ensure a smooth transition, said Ghani after the phone conversation with his American counterpart. He said Afghanistan will continue to work with the US and its NATO partners in the ongoing peace efforts.

“Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along, and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful,” he said in a series of tweets.

Earlier, the Afghan government’s top peace broker, Abdullah Abdullah, who is chairman of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation, told an audience in Kabul that the Taliban should not make the “grim mistake” of seeking to capture power through force following the withdrawal of foreign troops.

“The Taliban have committed this ‘miscalculation’ in the past…It would be wrong if the group thinks that they will reach their demands through force with the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan,” said Abdullah.

Nerve-wracking test

Defense analyst retired Brig. Mohammad Arif told Anadolu Agency that the withdrawal plan has put Afghans on all sides of the conflict in a “nerve-wracking test.”

“It was foreseeable. The Americans were not here to stay. But Afghans have to live on this land, so they need to rise above factional, ethnic, ideological and all other differences to reach a peace deal,” he said.

A UN report on Tuesday said “extraordinary levels” of harm were inflicted on civilians in Afghanistan in the first three months of 2021 with 573 killed and 1,210 injured, a 29% increase compared with the same period last year.

Deployment of foreign troops began in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, when the US together with the UK launched Operation Enduring Freedom. They were joined by some 43 NATO allies and partners after the UN authorized an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on Dec. 20, 2001. The report charged the Taliban for 43.5% of all civilian casualties, Afghan security forces for 25% of civilian casualties and undetermined anti-government elements for 12.5% in this period.

At its peak, there were an estimated 130,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. The mission was declared completed on Dec. 28, 2014, with the size of foreign troops drastically reduced and combat operations by all members almost entirely ended with the exception of the US. Currently, some 9,592 troops of 36 countries are serving in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.

Among the general public, the announcement of the withdrawal of foreign troops has also been met with mixed reactions, with some welcoming it as a way forward for a peaceful settlement and others fearing a chaotic and deadly turf war among Afghans backed by hostile regional powers.

“No war will end with war. Our people have been on the frontlines of the war on terror, for which the world should be grateful. The next few months should be used to reach peace. The Taliban wanted a US exit. They got it. What we want now from the Taliban is peace and life in dignity and harmony,” tweeted Fawzia Koofi, a female member of the Afghan government’s peace delegation.

“The situation is dire. Distrust, insecurity and fear are rampant, and all people are thinking of leaving the country. Those who have elsewhere to go, they can. But where will people like us go?,” tweeted Kabul-based journalist Habib Khan.

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