(CNN) – The U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is currently officially underway, according to the White House and several U.S. defense officials.
“A drawdown is underway,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard the Air Force on Thursday. “While these measures will initially lead to an increase in the armed forces, we continue to advocate that all US military personnel be evicted from Afghanistan by September 11, 2020.”
According to several U.S. Defense officials, fewer than 100 soldiers, along with military equipment, were moved largely by airplanes to carry out President Joe Biden’s orders to begin the withdrawal process no later than May 1.
In addition, U.S. government contractors and employees are leaving the country, officials said. The Pentagon has said it is concerned that Taliban staff will be attacked if they leave. It is therefore unclear whether full details of the departure process, which is expected to be completed by September 11th, will be disclosed.
There were approximately 2,500 openly recognized US troops in Afghanistan, as well as several hundred additional special forces. All of them will leave on the orders of the President.
A NATO official told CNN that the NATO allies have also begun withdrawing troops and that they plan to have their withdrawal “completed in a few months”. The official said they “will not go into operational details, including troop numbers or national timetables” to ensure the safety of their troops and that “any Taliban attacks during the withdrawal will be responded to with a vigorous response”.
Biden announced earlier this month his decision to end America’s longest war. He said the US “went to war with clear goals” and “achieved those goals.” The deadline set by the President for troop withdrawal is absolute and there is no potential for extension due to deteriorating conditions on the ground.
“The President’s intention is clear, the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan will not be rushed. … It is delivered and carried out in a safe and responsible manner to ensure the protection of our armed forces, ”added Jean-Pierre.
While Biden argued that the decades-long conflict is no longer in line with American priorities, lawmakers on both parties have raised concerns that the U.S. withdrawal will lead to a resurgence of the Taliban, undo the gains of Afghan women and civil society, and the American hostages in the US is endangering land and Afghans who have worked with US forces.
Biden: “Afghanistan was never intended to be a cross-generational company.”
In his first address to a joint congressional session on Wednesday evening, Biden argued that “the war in Afghanistan was never intended to be a cross-generational endeavor to build nations.”
“We went to Afghanistan to bring terrorists – the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th – and we said we would follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell to do so. … And we made bin Laden fair. We have reduced the al Qaeda terrorist threat in Afghanistan. And after 20 years of worth – bravery and sacrifice it is time to bring these troops home, ”said the president.
CNN reported last week that military equipment had been flown out of the country in the past few days. A key calculation will be when to pull so called “vehicles”, including armored vehicles that allow forces to move.
The Pentagon has assembled a significant defense force to send a strong message to the Taliban that it is ready to respond if they attack US forces on their way out. About 650 other ground troops, mostly Army Rangers, will be sent to Afghanistan as cover troops in the coming days to protect troops as they retreat, especially from remote areas.
The US is also sending additional artillery and missile systems to the army to protect the armed forces. The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower remains in the North Arabian Sea to carry out air strikes against the Taliban if necessary. And the Air Force has also positioned several B-52 bombers in the Gulf region.
On Sunday, General Austin Scott Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, said some troops would be moved within the country.
“All of our armed forces are now preparing to reverse. Officially, the notification deadline will be May 1st, but at the same time as taking local action, we have already started, ”Miller told reporters when asked at a press conference in Kabul whether the American withdrawal from bases had begun.
Officials have told CNN that once the withdrawal begins, efforts will be made to remove conventional forces and equipment as soon as possible if such equipment is not handed over to Afghan forces or destroyed on the spot.
The US intends to maintain military influence after the troops are gone
Last week, the senior U.S. general in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East made it clear that the U.S. intends to maintain military influence and ability to conduct air strikes in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American and NATO troops.
General Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, which also includes the Middle East and Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that military planners are looking for ways to continue operations in the country after the withdrawal.
He said the US wants to be able to carry out counter-terrorism missions at least from the air with manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as carry out surveillance and reconnaissance.
“We’ll have an architecture in the theater that allows us to look at Afghanistan,” said McKenzie. “It won’t give us the same picture that we have now. It will allow us to see inside. The areas will be bigger, the resources will be bigger, the risks will all be bigger, but it will be possible to do these again. It is certainly not impossible, but we will not have the vision we have now. “
As the US prepares to fully withdraw its troops, the State Department on Tuesday ordered US government officials “whose duties can be carried out elsewhere” to leave the US embassy in Kabul. A State Department spokesman told CNN that by minimizing the number of its staff, “there will be an urgent need for personnel to address issues related to the withdrawal of US forces and to continue the important work we are doing in support of Afghanistan and its population afford to stay in place. “
Foreign Secretary Tony Blinken told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview on Tuesday that the US is withdrawing its troops: “We are not withdrawing from Afghanistan, but are still intensely involved in diplomacy in support of the Afghan government and its people. Development, economic aid, humanitarian aid, assistance to the security forces. “
This story has been updated with additional reports.