KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) — The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is considerably ahead of schedule, an official told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday.
The developments came as questions loomed over the next phase of Afghanistan’s long war after a three-day ceasefire that led to a major drop in civilian casualties.
The truce, which the Taliban called to mark the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr, ended Tuesday night, leaving Afghans wondering whether it would be extended, or when the war might come raging back.
Violence levels remained low even after the end of the ceasefire, but Afghan security forces conducted air strikes in the south that killed 18 “militants,” police said.
Under a deal the United States signed with the Taliban in February, the Pentagon was to bring troop levels down from about 12,000 to 8,600 by mid-July, before withdrawing all forces by May 2021. The Afghan government was not a party to that agreement.
A senior U.S. defense official said the troop number was already at approximately 8,500, as commanders accelerate the withdrawal due to fears of the coronavirus.
“The drawdown was accelerated due to Covid-19 precautions,” the official told AFP, saying the departure of anyone with health concerns or over a certain age was being prioritized.
President Trump told reporters Tuesday the U.S. force level was “down to 7,000-some-odd soldiers right now.”
The next day he returned to a frequent complaint that the United States should not be acting as a “police force” in Afghanistan.
“After 19 years, it is time for them to police their own Country,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
“Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!”
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said the United States was adhering to its agreement with the Taliban.
More drawdowns would come “after the U.S. government assesses the security environment and the Taliban’s compliance with the agreement,” he said.
Afghans enjoyed a rare respite in the nearly 19-year-old war during the ceasefire, only the second of its type.
No major violence was reported until after the pause ended, with air strikes in southern Zabul province on Wednesday.
The strikes killed 18 people in response to an attack on a security forces convoy in Shah Joy district, provincial police spokesman Lal Mohammad Amiri told AFP.
Three children were also injured in the operation, he said, without specifying which group the “militants” belonged to.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter that a government airstrike had killed or wounded five civilians, including four children.
According to Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, civilian casualties fell by 80% during the ceasefire.
It said that on an average, 30 civilians would be killed and wounded every day during the holy month of Ramadan.
But this fell to six killed and wounded on each day of the ceasefire, the commission said on Twitter.
The Afghan government said it would continue with the release of Taliban prisoners that had been agreed in the U.S. deal and is seen as key to kickstarting long-delayed peace talks.
On Tuesday, the Afghan military freed about 1,000 Taliban inmates, mostly from Bagram jail near Kabul, as part of a pledge to release up to 2,000 insurgents in response to the Taliban-led ceasefire.
A senior Taliban member told AFP that in return, the Taliban planned to free up to 100 Afghan security force members as early as Thursday.
Top Afghan officials have demanded the Taliban extend the ceasefire and offered to reciprocate.
“If the Taliban are ready to extend the ceasefire, we are ready to continue the ceasefire too,” National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said Tuesday.
The future of talks “depends on the Taliban’s next move,” he said.
The prisoner swap is part of a U.S.-Taliban deal, which excluded the Afghan government, that stipulates Kabul would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the Taliban would free about 1,000 national security personnel.
Kabul already had freed about 1,000 Taliban inmates before the ceasefire, while the Taliban had released about 300 government captives.
By USMAN SHARIFI, with THOMAS WATKINS in Washington
© Agence France-Presse