KANDAHAR: As the US military began formally withdrawing from Afghanistan on Saturday, some residents in Kandahar -- the former bastion of the Taliban -- were optimistic the exit will bring peace to the violence-wracked country.
"The fighting will then be between two Muslim brothers (Afghan government forces and the Taliban) and the hope is that the two will reconcile and make peace," said Pacha Khan, a farmer from the southern Afghan province that was once a flashpoint of fighting.
US President Joe Biden had announced in April that the remaining 2,500 American troops will formally begin leaving Afghanistan from May 1 and complete their withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, bringing an end to America's longest war.
In reality, the withdrawal has been a work in progress for months. Fighting between US forces and the Taliban has stopped since a landmark deal between Biden's predecessor Donald Trump and the insurgents last year.
But battles rage daily between Afghan government forces and the militants across Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban who ruled the country in the 1990s with a harsh version of Islamic sharia law. Few shops were open in Kandahar city's main market on Saturday, while police set up checkpoints on roads leading to the airport -- almost deserted as most American troops have left.
In Kandahar's Bush Bazar -- named for former US president who started the war in 2001 -- shopkeepers sorted through used goods for sale from the former American base. "A few days ago there was a big blast outside the airport. We later came to know the Americans had destroyed equipment. Now we get scrap from there to be sold in the market," said Esa Mohammad, the bazar's secretary.
Many ordinary Afghans remain bitter at US forces for the hardships over the years. Mohammad, a farmer who gave only one name, said the past 20 years had been worse than the 1980s, when Afghanistan was occupied by Soviet troops.
"The Russians did not inflict the kind of casualties the Americans did. The Americans killed my brother 10 years ago when they bombarded our village. These infidels have inflicted heavy losses and I'm happy they are leaving," said the father of eight.
His views were echoed by Agha Shireen, a trishaw driver from Arghandab on the outskirts of Kandahar city. "They have killed a lot of our people and brought only misery. If the Taliban return, the situation might turn better," he said.
'An unending war'
But Pari (31), who works in Panjwai district believes that for lasting peace, the Taliban have to declare a ceasefire. "I'm happy the US is withdrawing... but if the situation deteriorates in the absence of a ceasefire I might be unable to work," she said.
One of the biggest achievements of the last two decades has been a boost to women's rights, with Afghan women working in almost every sector. Women were banned from work and girls from attending school during the Taliban regime.
Even as the mood appeared optimistic in Kandahar, fear lurked in other cities over the US pullout. "I feel the Taliban will again be strong after the withdrawal of foreign troops. I feel scared of another civil war and that we will be forced to leave the country," said Ghulam Nabi, a shopkeeper from the western city of Herat.
The departure of US forces will weaken the morale of Afghans, said Adila Kabiri, a professor at Herat University. Her views were shared by Abdul Ahad Safi, a resident from the restive eastern city of Jalalabad, which has seen deadly attacks by Taliban and jihadists from the Islamic State. "They should not go until we have peace. We are worried about the bloodshed and an unending war in our country," he said.