US on track to pull troops from Afghanistan despite turmoil

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Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2019 file photo, Republican Conference chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington. The United States is on track to withdraw several thousand troops from Afghanistan as agreed in February, even as violence flares and the Taliban and the Afghan government have failed to start peace talks. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – The United States is on track to meet its commitment to the Taliban to withdraw several thousand troops from Afghanistan by summer, even as violence flares, the peace process is stalled, and Kabul struggles in political deadlock.

U.S. officials say they will reduce to 8,600 troops by July 15 and abandon five bases. And by next spring all foreign forces are suppose to withdraw, ending America’s longest war. Yet the outlook for peace is cloudy at best. In the absence of Afghan peace talks, the Trump administration may face the prospect of fully withdrawing even as the Taliban remains at war with the government.

That has concerned some lawmakers, including Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee. She says the United States needs to keep a military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan to prevent extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate from forming havens from which to attack the U.S.

“Withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan won't end the war — it will just let the terrorists win," she told The Associated Press.

Some question whether the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 29, which the Trump administration billed as “a decisive step to achieve a negotiated peace,” was instead mainly a withdrawal agreement. President Donald Trump had campaigned on bringing troops home from foreign wars. And though the Afghan government publicly supported the deal, it did not participate directly in the negotiations and has not, in Washington's view, capitalized on the chance for peace talks.

“President Trump promised to bring our troops home from overseas and is following through on that promise,” the White House said when the Doha deal was signed.

The deal stipulated that the Taliban would start intra-Afghan peace negotiations on March 10, but that has not happened. The Taliban and the Afghan government also have squabbled over a promised release of each other’s prisoners.

“A lot of this boils down to: Was the U.S.-Taliban agreement any kind of serious negotiation at all, or was it just totally a fig leaf to cover abject withdrawal? I suspect the latter,” said Stephen Biddle, a Columbia University professor of international and public affairs and a former adviser to U.S. commanders in Kabul.