Speaking to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, a US official confirmed the beginning of the withdrawal process, with plans to drop the number of US troops in the country from 13,000 to 8,600.
Later, US Forces Afghanistan confirmed that the highly anticipated drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan has begun.
“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,” read a statement by USFOR-A Spokesperson Col. Sonny Legget on Monday.
“USFOR-A maintains all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives – including counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K and providing support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. USFOR-A is on track to meet directed force levels while retaining the necessary capabilities,” it added.
According to the signed peace agreement, the withdrawal process for US troops had to begin 10 days within the signing of the agreement, which took place on February 29. Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved the withdrawal on March 2. Once troop levels hit 8,600, the conditions in the country will be reassessed before further troops are pulled.
The peace agreement was signed last month by US Peace Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and one of the Taliban’s senior leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Qatar’s capital Doha. Troops are to be pulled over the course of 135 days from five bases, and the remaining soldiers within 14 months should the country remain stable enough to not need US presence.
The pact also promised to lift sanctions on Taliban members by August. Although the group’s leader Hibatullah Akhundzada ordered his fighters to follow the rules of the agreement, they did not follow orders and continued attacks on Afghan forces. US troops responded with strikes.
Another aspect of the deal that may be jeopardized is the promised release of 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters. President Ashraf Ghani has stated that he will only release the men if he gets “an executive guarantee so that these people will not return to violence”. Under the agreement, the prisoners were to be released by March 10.