The United States has begun the initial, gradual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in keeping with the peace agreement signed with the Taliban on Feb. 29. The Pentagon confirmed this despite the political chaos surrounding the Kabul government.
Under the peace agreement, U.S. forces will be reduced from 13,000 to 8,600 over the next 135 days said Colonel Sonny Leggett, spokesman for the American command in Afghanistan. The U.S. and the NATO allies will completely withdraw all of their troops within 14 months if the Taliban hold up their end of the agreement.
“In accordance with the U.S.-Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Joint Declaration and the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days,” Leggett said.
The U.S. retains “all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives, including conducting counterterrorism operations” in Afghanistan despite the withdrawal of troops, Leggett added in the statement. The U.S-led coalition continues the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda that still operate in the country.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said a week ago that he had already approved the start of the withdrawal, which will be coordinated by military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan.
According to military sources, the troops leaving now had already been scheduled to rotate back to the U.S.; however, they will not be replaced. Esper has said that General Scott Miller, the U.S. commander in Kabul, will assess the conditions once the troop level goes down to the initial 8,600.
The United States has repeatedly said that the coalition withdrawal is entirely “conditions-based” meaning that the Taliban will have to meet the standards of the agreement. However, the Taliban have continued their attacks against Afghan government troops, which prompted the U.S. to conduct drone strikes against them in defense of its Afghan allies.
Under the agreement, the Afghan government was to release 5,000 Taliban fighters held in prisons, something they said that they wouldn’t abide by. However, on Monday they did say they would release 1,000 of the Taliban prisoners.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was sworn in for a new term after winning the contested election back in September. The Electoral Commission confirmed Ghani as the winner of the very tight election. The U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy to Afghanistan Ross Wilson, NATO commander General Scott Miller, as well as the ambassadors from the European Union, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Germany, and Norway were all in attendance.
However, his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah has stated that the results were fraudulent. He conducted his own ceremony a short distance away at Sapedar Palace, which he used as his office during his tenure as Afghanistan’s chief executive in the last government.
With talks with the Taliban scheduled to begin soon, the perception of a fractured, weak central government will not aid in the negotiations to end the 18-year war. “Prioritizing an inclusive government and unified Afghanistan is paramount for the future of the country and particularly for the cause of peace,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday.