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Trump says US has ‘no target’ date to pull troops from Afghanistan

President Donald J. Trump walks from the Oval Office to a coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Donald Trump says he has not set a target date for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, where a fragile U.S.-Taliban peace process has gained renewed momentum in recent days.

The president’s comments on May 26 come amid speculation he may make ending the United States’ longest war a campaign issue ahead of November’s election.

“We’re there 19 years and, yeah, I think that’s enough…. We can always go back if we want to,” Trump told a White House news conference. “I have no target. But as soon as reasonable.”

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February that lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for security commitments from the Taliban.

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But before reaching that final stage, the deal sets out an ambitious goal of reducing violence, a mutual prisoner exchange between the militants and the Afghan government, and intra-Afghan negotiations.

The Afghan government freed 900 more Taliban prisoners on May 26 as a three-day cease-fire with the militants drew to an end at midnight.

The break in fighting, which came into effect on May 24 to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, was for the most part holding out across the country, officials said.

On May 25, authorities freed 100 prisoners from Bagram, north of Kabul.

“We hope that the cease-fire will be extended, so that the process of prisoners’ release can move on smoothly and also we would be able to start the face-to-face intra-Afghan talks sooner,” Afghan National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said on May 26.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen welcomed the release of the 900 prisoners as “good progress” and said the group would in turn free a “remarkable number” of prisoners soon.

However, he said nothing about extending the cease-fire, which was to expire at midnight local time.

Earlier, a senior Taliban figure was quoted as saying the group was considering an extension of the cease-fire “if these developments, like the announcement of prisoner release, continue.”

The U.S.-Taliban deal stipulates that Kabul free 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the militants are to release 1,000 captives — a move expected to lead to intra-Afghan negotiations.

After the Eid prisoner releases, the Afghan government said 2,000 Taliban militants had been freed.

The militant group has freed 245 security personnel, civil servants, and other people it had been holding.

President Ashraf Ghani said the government was also ready to hold peace talks with the Taliban, seen as key to ending a nearly two-decade-long war.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has welcomed the cease-fire, but warned that the freed Taliban fighters should not return to the battlefield.

Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission also cautioned the government against releasing Taliban militants who committed war crimes.

The prospect of direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban gained a boost on May 17 when Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, reached a power-sharing agreement nearly eight months after disputed elections that led to a parallel government and hampered efforts to broker a peace deal.

The United States has about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan. Washington also pays about $4 billion a year to maintain Afghan security forces.

Taliban militants control about half of Afghanistan’s territory and have continued to carry out attacks since the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed.

The Afghan government says at least 146 civilians were killed and 430 wounded in Taliban attacks during the Muslim holy month Ramadan, which ran from April 23 to May 23.