Hundreds of U.S. troops have begun withdrawing from Afghanistan in line with the U.S. commitments announced in the recent U.S.-Taliban peace deal.
American service members are leaving Afghanistan, with no troops planned to replace them in the country, the Associated Press reported Monday following conversations with an unnamed U.S. military official. The withdrawal comes even as uncertainty persists around the Taliban peace agreement, as well as political upheaval within the Afghan government.
Last week, U.S. military officials signaled early trouble with the peace agreement, after the Taliban carried out a series of attacks on Afghan forces throughout the country. At the time, Taliban leaders ordered their fighters to resume operations against the Afghan government. U.S. forces launched a defensive airstrike to help the Afghan forces repel one Taliban attack on a security checkpoint in Helmand.
The U.S.-Taliban peace deal was adopted as a measure to reduce violence between the U.S. and Taliban forces, and act as a precursor to a further intra-Afghan peace process. While the U.S. has kept up with its commitments to the agreement, the Taliban has signaled delays to the ongoing Afghan peace discussions. The Taliban called for the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 imprisoned Taliban members before it would meet for the first round of Afghan peace talks, set for March 10. The Taliban has indicated the peace talks are unlikely to go through as scheduled.
Despite the uncertainty, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper reportedly told Gen. Scott Miller, the U.S. commander in Kabul, to proceed with the troop withdrawal until the U.S. troop presence decreases from around 13,000 to around 8,600. Once troop levels fall to 8,600, U.S. military officials will pause the troop reduction and assess the conditions as they stand.
The total U.S. troop withdrawal is expected to happen within 14 months, as long as security conditions with the Taliban are met.
The uncertainty surrounding the Afghan peace process is likely exacerbated by a disagreement between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his main presidential election, Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. Though the Afghan elections were held in September, the result has been contested for months.
Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission ruled in February that Ghani had won reelection with just over 50 percent of the vote, however Abdullah has maintained he lost only as a result of election fraud and claimed victory for himself. The two presidential rivals have issued invitations to their own swearing-in ceremonies on Monday.
Ghani has also opposed the prisoner exchanges proposed ahead of the intra-Afghan peace talks, despite pressure from Washington and the Taliban’s offer to release 1,000 Afghan troops and civilian government employees it had detained.