WASHINGTON, DC — The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is now formally underway, according to several U.S. defense officials on Thursday. Fewer than 100 troops, along with military equipment, have been moved largely by aircraft to execute President Joe Biden’s order to begin the withdrawal process no later than May 1.
In addition, contractors and U.S. government workers are also departing the country, the officials said. The Pentagon has said it is concerned about personnel coming under attack from the Taliban as they depart so it’s not clear if it will disclose all the details of the departure process, which is due to be completed by September 11.
There have been about 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan that are openly acknowledged, plus several hundred additional special operations forces that are not acknowledged. All of them will depart under the President’s orders.
CNN reported last week that military equipment has been flown out of the country in recent days. A key calculation will be when to draw down so-called “rolling stock,” including armored vehicles that allow forces to move around.
The Pentagon has assembled a significant protection force to send the Taliban a strong message that it is ready to respond if they attack U.S. forces on their way out. Approximately another 650 ground forces, mainly Army Rangers, headed into Afghanistan in the coming days as a covering force to protect the withdrawal, especially from remote areas.
The U.S. is also sending in additional Army artillery and rocket systems for force protection. The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower will remain in the North Arabian Sea to conduct airstrikes against the Taliban if needed. And the Air Force has also positioned several B-52 bombers in the Gulf region.
On Sunday, Gen. Austin Scott Miller, commander of US Forces Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, said some troops were being moved within the country.
“All of our forces are now preparing to retrograde. Officially the notification date will be the first of May, but at the same time as we start taking local actions we have already begun that,” Miller told reporters when asked at a news conference in Kabul if the American withdrawal from bases had begun.
Biden announced his decision to end America’s longest war earlier this month, arguing that the decades-long conflict no longer aligned with American priorities. The deadline the President has set for troops to withdraw is absolute, with no potential for an extension based on worsening conditions on the ground.
Officials have told CNN that after the withdrawal begins, there will be an effort to move conventional forces and equipment out as quickly as possible if that equipment is not turned over to Afghan forces or destroyed in place.
Last week, the senior U.S. general responsible for US troops in the Middle East made clear that the US intends to maintain military influence and the ability to carry out air strikes in Afghanistan after American and NATO troops are withdrawn.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East and Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that military planners are looking at ways to continue operations in the country following the withdrawal.
He said the U.S. wants to be able to conduct counter-terrorism missions, at least from the air through the use of manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as carry out surveillance and reconnaissance.
“We will have an architecture in the theater that will allow us to look into Afghanistan,” McKenzie said. “It will not give us the same picture that we have now. It will allow us to see in. The ranges will be greater, the resources will be greater, the risks will all be greater, but it will be possible to do those again. It is certainly not impossible, but we won’t have the vision we have now.”