KABUL: The US on Tuesday began the first phase of a troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, a key Taliban condition prior to signing an historic peace deal on Feb. 29.
In a statement on Monday, Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, said: “In accordance with the US-Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Joint Declaration and the US-Taliban Agreement, US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days.”
Based on the agreement, Washington has 135 days from the signing of the accord to reduce troop numbers from the 12,000-13,000 currently in the country, ending the 18-year-old Afghan conflict, the longest in American history.
“USFOR-A maintains all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives, including conducting counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K (Daesh) and providing support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” said the colonel, adding that the Americans were on track “to meet directed force levels while retaining the necessary capabilities.”
The peace deal followed 16 months of intensive secret talks between the Taliban and US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, with the insurgents pledging not to allow Afghan soil to be used against any other country, including the US.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years until their ouster in a US-led invasion in 2001, as a punishment for protecting Al-Qaeda which Washington accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks on the US.
In the face of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and other local factors, the Taliban managed to gain ground in various parts of the country, challenging the central government and mounting bloody attacks on foreign troops.
By 2010, more than 140,000 foreign troops were stationed in the country, but tens of thousands left in the years that followed, allowing the militants to gain footholds in areas outside their traditional power base such as the north and the northeast.
Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, told Arab News on Tuesday that the withdrawal of troops will have no impact on the security situation in the country.
“Afghan defense and security forces have always had preparations for the defense of the country and have been conducting and planning most of the operations independently in recent years,” he said, adding that Kabul had no problem in continuing that based on “the capacity that we have.”
Retired Afghan Gen. Attiqullah Amarkhail said on Tuesday that the national security forces had borne the brunt of executing the operations across the country and that the departure of the US troops would “not have much effect on the battleground.”
However, he noted that divisions among political leaders — which became more apparent on Monday when incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his election archrival, Abdullah Abdullah, held separate inaugural ceremonies for the presidency — would seriously embolden the Taliban and affect the situation.
“That is a really worrying factor since the Taliban will gain more morale seeing this disunity and a thirst for power among some people in Kabul,” he told Arab News.