US starts troop pullout, seeks end to Afghan leaders’ feud
KABUL: The United States began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the US military said on Tuesday, taking a step forward on its peace deal with the Taliban while also praising Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s promise to start releasing Taliban prisoners after he had delayed for over a week.
The US-Taliban deal signed on February 29 was touted as Washington’s effort to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan. The next crucial step was to be intra-Afghan talks in which all factions including the Taliban would negotiate a road map for their country’s future.
But Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, were each sworn in as president in separate ceremonies on Monday. Abdullah and the elections complaints commission had charged fraud in last year’s vote. The duelling inaugurations have thrown plans for talks with the Taliban into chaos, although Ghani said Tuesday that he’d start putting together a negotiating team.
The disarray on the Afghan government side is indicative of the uphill task facing Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as he tries to get Afghanistan’s bickering leadership to come together. In an early Tuesday tweet, Khalilzad said he hoped the two leaders can “come to an agreement on an inclusive and broadly accepted government. We will continue to assist.”
US military spokesman in Afghanistan Sonny Leggett said in a statement on Tuesday that the military had begun its “conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days.”
Currently, the US has about 13,000 soldiers in Afghanistan — 8,000 of whom are involved in training and advising Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, while about 5,000 are involved in anti-terror operations and militarily supporting the Afghan army when they are requested. Ghani had been dragging his feet on releasing some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, something agreed to in the US-Taliban deal. Ghani promised Monday to announce a decree to free the prisoners, after the US and a number of foreign dignitaries appeared to back his claim to the presidency by sending their representatives to his inauguration. – AP