US military begins Afghanistan drawdown

US military begins Afghanistan drawdown
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The United States has begun to remove troops from Afghanistan roughly a week after signing an agreement with the Taliban to do so.

A U.S. military spokesman confirmed the start of the drawdown, which was first reported by The Associated Press.

“In accordance with the U.S.-Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Joint Declaration and the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days,” spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said in a statement.

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“USFOR-A maintains all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives — including conducting counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and ISIS-K and providing support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” he added. “USFOR-A is on track to meet directed force levels while retaining the necessary capabilities.”

On Feb. 29, U.S. and Taliban negotiators signed a deal that said the United States would drawdown to 8,600 troops in 135 days and withdraw all troops in 14 months.

In exchange, the Taliban promised to deny safe haven to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda that pose a threat to the United States and its allies.

The agreement has come under fire from several lawmakers, including many Republicans, for having no public verification procedures to ensure the Taliban complies with its commitments.

The deal includes two classified annexes. Lawmakers who have seen them have said they do not satisfy their concerns about the agreement.

The start of the drawdown comes amid continued Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces and deepening political turmoil in Afghanistan.

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In response to Taliban attacks on an Afghan military checkpoint, the U.S. military conducted an airstrike on Taliban fighters in Helmand province last week.

News of the start of drawdown comes the same day Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, held dueling inauguration ceremonies in Kabul.

Last month, Afghanistan’s election commission declared Ghani the winner of the country’s September elections, but Abdullah continues to dispute the results.

The agreement called for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations Tuesday, but those talks are not expected to begin as planned amid Afghanistan’s political crisis and a dispute over a prisoner swap.

The agreement stipulated the Afghan government would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the Taliban releasing up to 1,000 of its prisoners, but Ghani rejected the exchange as a precondition for talks. The Taliban responded by saying it would not start talks until the prisoners are released.