Taliban official: Half of US troops to leave Afghanistan by May 1

A Taliban official said on Wednesday the United States had promised to withdraw half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April, but the US military said no timeframe had been set.

Abdul Salam Hanafi, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Moscow between the Taliban and other prominent Afghan figures, said American officials pledged the pullout will begin this month.

“The Americans told us that from the beginning of February to the end of April half of the troops from Afghanistan will be withdrawn,” Hanafi told reporters.

But Pentagon spokesman Army Colonel Rob Manning said the US military had received no orders to begin withdrawing.

“Peace talks with the Taliban continue, but [the Defense Department] has not received a directive to change the force structure in Afghanistan,” said Manning.

‘No date fixed’

A US military spokeswoman in Kabul also denied an immediate troop withdrawal.

“If all parties do what is necessary to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a platform for terrorism, as conditions allow we are willing to look at changes in force presence,” she told the AFP news agency.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, head of the Taliban delegation in Moscow, also contradicted Hanafi’s earlier comments on an American withdrawal saying no date had yet been fixed. 

Hanafi said Washington and the Taliban agreed that all foreign troops would eventually leave and Afghanistan would never be used as a base for attacks on the US. 

He added the US and the Taliban will each create a technical committee that “will work on a timetable for the withdrawal of remaining troops”.

Government no-show

The Taliban entered the second day of unprecedented talks with powerful Afghan politicians in Moscow on Wednesday, sidestepping the Kabul government. No government official was present in the meetings.

Stanikzai made a rare appearance in front of international media alongside former president Hamid Karzai after the talks wrapped up.

“It was very successful. We agreed on many points and I am hopeful that in future we can succeed further, and finally we can reach a solution, we can find a complete peace in Afghanistan,” Stanikzai said.

Karzai called the discussions “very satisfactory”.

The Moscow summit took place a week after the Taliban held separate talks aimed at ending 17 years of fighting with American negotiators in Qatar. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was also not invited to the table in Doha.

A top US general said Kabul must be involved in talks if the push for a peace deal is to be successful.

“Ultimately, we need to get to a Taliban-Afghanistan discussion,” General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, told US legislators.

“Only they will be able to resolve the key issues involved in the dispute.”

‘A fantasy’

Ghani said he had spoken late on Tuesday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who stressed the importance of “ensuring the centrality of the Afghan government in the peace process”.

The Afghan president has vented frustration at being sidelined as his political enemies shared prayers and meals with the Taliban while discussing the future of the country.

“The Moscow meeting is nothing more than a fantasy. No one can decide without the consent of the Afghan people,” Ghani told Afghan broadcaster TOLOnews.

“Those who have gathered in Moscow have no executive authority. They can say what they want, but who are they representing?”

The Moscow conference is the Taliban’s most significant engagement with Afghan leaders in recent memory.

Speaking to the Afghan envoys, some of whom are female, the Taliban promised to loosen some restrictions on women and not seek a monopoly on power.


Al Jazeera and news agencies

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