US to start initial troop pullback from Afghanistan: Esper

AP , Monday 2 Mar 2020

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (AFP)
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (AFP)

Warning that it will be a ``long, windy, bumpy road'' to peace in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday he has approved the start of an American troop withdrawal even as the Taliban said it would continue attacks against Afghan forces.

Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Esper said he wasn't sure if the drawdown had begun, but he said it must start within 10 days of the US-Taliban peace agreement that was announced on Saturday.

Esper said Gen. Scott Miller, the US commander in Kabul, will begin the withdrawal to about 8,600 troops from the current total of nearly 13,000, and then will stop and assess conditions.

The agreement with the Taliban followed a seven-day ``reduction in violence'' period that, from the Trump administration's viewpoint, was meant to test the Taliban's seriousness about moving toward a final peace agreement.

``Our expectation is that the reduction in violence will continue,`` said Esper, adding that officials will work to determine who is responsible for any acts of violence.

``That's going to be the nature of this over the next days, weeks and months,'' he said. ``I'm not going to get too exited about what happens at the moment. We're just going to deal with each situation as it arises.''

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there is no expectation that violence in Afghanistan will ``go to zero'' quickly. And Esper said the US expects violence will ``taper off,'' leading to a start by March 10 of peace negotiations among Afghan groups, including the Taliban.

``This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road. There will be ups and downs, and we'll and stop and start,'' said Esper.

The Taliban military commission on Monday issued an order to its fighters on the ground to resume attacks against Afghan forces and the ``the Kabul puppet administration,`` but not against foreigners. And there were reports of an attack in the eastern province of Khost, but Milley said it was not yet clear who was responsible.

That area is known for Taliban activity, but other insurgent groups, including the Islamic State, could be responsible.

The peace agreement signed with Taliban militants on Saturday aims to bring America's longest war to an end after 18 years of bloodshed that began after the 9/11 attacks.

Under the deal, the US would draw its forces down to 8,600 in the next three to four months, and the remaining troops would leave within 14 months.

The withdrawal depends on the Taliban meeting its commitment to prevent ``any group or individual, including al-Qaida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.'' The deal does not, however, tie the US withdrawal to any specific outcome from the all-Afghan peace talks, according to US officials.

``We are going to show good faith and begin withdrawing our troops,'' Esper said. But both he and Milley said the US will continue counterterrorism strikes against other groups, such as Islamic State militants who pose threats to the US

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