Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford pushed back on reports indicating that the U.S. would be soon withdrawing from Afghanistan.
“I don’t think about it as we’re going to withdraw, I think about, we are going to initiate interact and dialogue, ideally leading to peace and stability for the Afghan people,” Dunford told reporters on Wednesday during the first Pentagon briefing in a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Dunford’s remarks came after he was asked if U.S. forces would be leaving Afghanistan before counterterrorism forces could be in place.
A Taliban spokesperson had said that the group was nearing a peace deal with the U.S. that would include the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Dunford, however, refused to refer to any imminent actions as a withdrawal.
“We’re going to ensure that our counterterrorism objectives are addressed,” he explained. “And so I think it’s premature. I’m not using the ‘withdraw’ word right now.”
Dunford, along with newly confirmed Defense Secretary Mark Esper, also clarified that any peace deal with the Taliban would be made with the Afghan government.
Afghanistan officials said they have not received a briefing on peace talks between U.S. and Taliban officials, though any negotiated deal would require their involvement — and ultimately the ongoing cooperation between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban.
“I view any agreement that would be pending as something we are doing with, not to, the Afghan people,” Dunford also said at the Pentagon briefing, but clarified that the Afghanistan government would not be a major negotiator in the talks.
Rumors of a peace deal had surfaced in reports on Aug. 1 when anonymous defense officials told The Washington Post that a peace deal would include a cease-fire and a renunciation of al-Qaeda” as part of concessions from the Taliban, while the U.S. would withdraw 5,000-6,000 troops.
One official referred to talks as being “80 or 90 percent of the way there” with “a long way to go on that last 10 or 20 percent.”
Negotiations have been ongoing for months between the Taliban and Afghan-born U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been spearheading the peace talks since his appointment by the Trump Administration last year.
Khalilzad has repeatedly called the negotiations “productive” and remarked on his hopefulness on the deal. However, Khalilzad had also asserted that a peace deal would not include a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“Let me be clear: We will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement w/ the Talibs. All sides agree Afghanistan’s future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations,” Khalilzad tweeted on Monday.
No one should be intimidated or fooled by propoganda! Let me be clear: We will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement w/ the Talibs. All sides agree Afghanistan’s future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations.
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) August 26, 2019
President Trump has previously criticized the length of the Afghanistan war and has indicated he would like to remove most U.S. forces from the nation.