US Starts Troop Pullout, Seeks End To Afghan Leaders’ Feud

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WASHINGTON – 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.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement Monday saying, “We also welcome President Ghani’s announcement that he will issue a decree March 10 on Taliban prisoner release.”

Taliban officials said late Mon­day that a flurry of biometric iden­tifications were being conducted on Taliban prisoners, hinting at a mass release, according to prison­ers currently in lockup. The Tali­ban officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to talk to the media.

Pompeo also said he “strongly opposed” the establishment of a parallel government in Kabul, de­spite the early signs of one emerg­ing. Abdullah had quickly sent his vice-presidents to occupy the of­ficial offices on Monday, ahead of Ghani’s plan to send his vice presi­dents to their offices Tuesday.

Pompeo warned against “any use of force to resolve political dif­ferences.” Both candidates — but particularly Abdullah — are backed by warlords with heavily armed mi­litias, underscoring fears they could use force to back their candidate.

The US has said its partial troop withdrawal over an 18-month period provided for in the deal will be linked to the Taliban keeping their promises to help fight terror in Afghanistan, but not to the suc­cess of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

On the weekend, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said the insurgent group was com­mitted to their agreement with the United States and called on Wash­ington to do its part to make sure their prisoners were freed.

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