KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) — American forces have started pulling out of two bases in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Tuesday, the day peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban were due to start despite widespread violence and a political crisis.
The United States is keen to end its longest-ever conflict, and under the terms of a deal signed in Doha, Qatar in February has said all foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months — provided the Taliban stick to their security commitments.
Under the accord, the U.S. is supposed to cut its troop presence from about 12,000 to 8,600 by mid-July, and close five of its roughly 20 bases across the country.
Troops have started leaving one base in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south, and another base in Herat in the east, a U.S. official told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
Even with the drawdown, U.S. forces retain “all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives,” Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said Monday.
Helmand, which along with neighboring Kandahar province is considered a Taliban stronghold, is where U.S. and British forces fought some of the bloodiest campaigns of the 18-year war.
Omar Zwak, spokesman for Helmand’s governor, told AFP that “20 to 30” foreigners had left Lashkar Gah since the weekend.
The initial drawdown comes as the Taliban, who see themselves as having achieved victory over America, test the Pentagon’s resolve to protect local partners by conducting dozens of low-level attacks against Afghan forces. The United States has responded to only a few of those attacks.
Under terms of the withdrawal deal, the Taliban are supposed to tackle jihadists such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and hold talks with the Afghan government that were due to start Tuesday.
But Kabul is in disarray and unable to present a unified front to negotiate with the Taliban.
On Monday, President Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated for a second term after an election that was marred by fraud allegations while his rival, former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, also declared himself winner and swore himself in as premier in a parallel ceremony.
Peace talks were supposed to start Tuesday but have been delayed by a dispute over the release of Taliban prisoners — something the Taliban have demanded as a prerequisite to negotiations, but which Ghani has refused to do.
Ghani on Tuesday was expected to announce a decree on the issue and reveal details of the negotiating team.
Washington denounced Abdullah’s self-inauguration, urging unity in Kabul for negotiations with the Taliban.
“We strongly oppose any action to establish a parallel government, and any use of force to resolve political differences,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday.
“Prioritizing an inclusive government and unified Afghanistan is paramount for the future of the country and particularly for the cause of peace,” he said.
© Agence France-Presse