ISLAMABAD - The U.S. military said Friday its withdrawal from Afghanistan is continuing and that it expects troop levels to drop to 8,600 by mid-July under terms of a peace-building deal with the Taliban.
The “conditions-based” military withdrawal began within days after the signing of the landmark agreement with the Islamist insurgency on February 29, when the number of total American troops in the country stood at around 13,000.
The agreement also calls for the withdrawal of all American personnel from Afghanistan, along with coalition partners, by July 2021.
“We are not providing updates on current troop levels primarily due to operational security concerns associated with the drawdown,” a U.S. military spokesman told VOA when asked for a reaction to media reports the number of service members had already fallen to fewer than 10,000.
“U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) continues to reduce force levels and expects to be at 8,600 U.S. troops within 135 days (mid-July) as stipulated by the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” the spokesman noted in the statement.
The Islamist insurgent group is obliged under the accord to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghan soil for international terrorism and halt attacks on U.S.-led international forces.
Increase in Taliban attacks
Meanwhile, the Taliban has continued to wage deadly attacks against Afghan forces in Afghanistan. Officials told VOA an early Friday bomb and gun insurgent raid on a military base in southern Helmand province killed at least 10 soldiers.
A regional Afghan military spokesman confirmed the killing of a soldier in adjoining Kandahar province in a Taliban attack that also wounded three security personnel.
Insurgent attacks have escalated in Afghanistan as the annual spring fighting season arrives amid concerns the U.S. military drawdown is encouraging the Taliban to intensify its violent campaign against the Kabul government.
“USFOR-A remains committed to supporting our Afghan partners throughout the process and maintains the capabilities and authorities necessary to accomplish our train, advise and assist and counterterrorism objectives,” said the U.S. military spokesman, apparently responding to the concerns.
Stalled Afghan peace talks
The U.S.-Taliban agreement binds the insurgents to engage in a political reconciliation dialogue with other Afghan groups, including the government in Kabul, to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and power-sharing arrangement in the post-war Afghanistan.
But the proposed intra-Afghan negotiations, which were supposed to begin on March 10, have stalled because of an extremely slow-moving prisoner swap between the Taliban and Afghan government, which was not part of the agreement.
The peace building deal called for the release of up to 5,000 insurgent prisoners from Afghan jails in exchange for 1,000 government personnel being held by the Taliban.
Around 550 Taliban inmates have so far been released while the insurgents have set free more than 100 prisoners. The Taliban has ruled out peace talks until all of the insurgent inmates are released.
Another obstacle in the way of implementation of the agreement is the lingering political crisis stemming from the disputed presidential election in Afghanistan.
Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was officially declared the winner of the September 28 polls, but runner-up Abdullah Abdullah rejected the outcome, paralyzing governance in the turmoil-hit country.
The two rivals held competing inauguration ceremonies in March, ignoring U.S. calls for ending the dispute in favor of an “inclusive” government to help move the peace process with the Taliban to end decades of deadly hostilities in Afghanistan.
Abdullah, however, tweeted Friday his team has made progress in negotiations with the Ghani camp to resolve the political crisis, saying the two sides have “reached a tentative agreement on a range of principles.”
He did not elaborate, saying details of the proposed agreement are still being finalized as soon as possible.
Looming COVID-19 threat
The slow progress in the U.S.-Taliban deal and the political crisis come amid the threat of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen, while announcing the release of a fresh batch of dozens of government prisoners on Thursday, maintained it “is trying to speed up prisoners’ release process in order to save lives of the prisoners from the risk of the coronavirus disease.”
A U.S. government agency in a report submitted to the U.S. Congress this week has warned Afghanistan is likely facing a “health disaster” from COVID-19.
The warning from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, also known as SIGAR, comes as Afghan officials say the pandemic has killed 68 people and infected close to 2,400 others.
“Afghanistan’s numerous and, in some cases, unique vulnerabilities - a weak health-care system, widespread malnutrition, porous borders, massive internal displacement, contiguity with Iran, and ongoing conflict - make it likely the country will confront a health disaster in the coming months,” SIGAR said.