The US Department of Defense has began planning a full withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021.
This was announced by David Helvey, the official performing the duties of assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs when speaking to the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security at a hearing.
According to him, the Pentagon has begun “prudent planning” on having 0 troops left in Afghanistan by mid-year 2021.
“I’d like to make it clear that [Defense Secretary Mark Esper] has not issued orders to reduce military personnel below this 4,000 to 5,000 level in Afghanistan, although we are conducting prudent planning to withdraw to zero service members by May 2021 if conditions warrant, per the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” Helvey said.
This announcement came as US President Donald Trump is praising that there would be drawdowns in the region and he’s delivering on promises he’s made as part of his campaign for the upcoming presidential elections in November 2020.
Officials said they expect to be at about 4,500 troops in Afghanistan by November.
The comments also come as the Taliban and Afghan government have started peace talks in Doha, Qatar, aimed at ending the 19-year war.
But the two sides remain far apart on issues as basic as a cease-fire and women’s rights.
The withdrawal is being planned, but at the same time the US said that the Taliban group is slow on delivering on their counterterrorism commitments.
“The Taliban has still not shown conclusively that they’re going to break with al Qaeda,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this month. “So there are still some things out there that concern me about the Taliban’s either ability or willingness to comply with all the terms of the deal.”
On September 22nd, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy for the Afghan peace talks, said the Taliban has taken “positive steps” toward breaking with al Qaeda, though he said the Taliban has more work to do and would not answer a question in an unclassified setting on whether Taliban leaders have instructed their fighters to break from the terrorist group.
“We look for more steps before we are satisfied, and I believe that once we reach 4,500, we’d do an evaluation of ties and actions that they have taken and make decisions based on that,” Khalilzad said at the hearing.
Khalilzad said that “by any measure, current levels of violence are too high,” adding that “we know that reductions are possible.”
US Senators appear to be critical of the US-Taliban deal, saying that the group can’t be trusted.
“Despite multiple indications that the Taliban have not fully met their commitments under the February agreement, the Trump administration has steadily withdrawn U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which has ceded much of our leverage to help shape the future of Afghanistan for its people and our national security interests,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, chairman of the subcommittee.
“While we are all eager for our sons and daughters in uniform to return home, it is also important that we do not needlessly or recklessly bargain away the rights and freedoms that the Afghan people have gained at such a huge cost in American, Coalition, and Afghan lives,” he added.
In response, Helvey said that the withdrawal in May 2021 would be “fundamentally conditions based.”
“We’ll be watching very carefully to assess the conditions of Taliban compliance with the terms of its agreement, and that will be used to inform decisions on further and future withdrawals,” he said.
Khalilzad also said that if the Taliban didn’t uphold their end of the deal, the US was freed from its own commitments.
“That’s why I say it’s conditions-based,” he said. “That means if they don’t deliver on their commitments, we don’t have to withdraw forces. We could adjust our force posture. Those are decisions that our management will have to make.”
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