Pompeo Says Taliban Commitments to U.S. Are Key to Withdrawal

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Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said American troop levels in Afghanistan would depend on the Taliban upholding its commitments with the U.S. regardless of the outcome of domestic peace talks set to start in Doha, Qatar on Saturday.

“There are a series of commitments that the Taliban have made, we have every expectation that they will follow through on them,” Pompeo told reporters on his way to Doha, where he will oversee the start of talks between the two sides. “Our commitment to reduce our forces to zero is conditioned on them executing their obligations under the agreement.”

He declined to say whether the Trump administration would wait for an accord before withdrawing all U.S. forces.

The peace negotiations were supposed to have started in early March, weeks after the Taliban and the United States signed an agreement under which the U.S. would start withdrawing some of its 13,000 troops so long as the Taliban pledged to cut ties with terrorists and prevent Afghan territory from becoming militant havens.

While the U.S. has steadily cut back its forces, and is expected to reach about 4,500 troops in the coming weeks, the intra-Afghan dialog was repeatedly delayed, hung up over disagreements between on the release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners and sustained attacks by the group on Afghan forces.

Despite almost two decades of war, the Taliban are at their strongest since being ousted by American forces in late 2001, after they refused to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. On Wednesday, a bomb attack targeted Afghanistan’s vice president, and while he emerged unscathed, 10 people were killed. The Taliban denied responsibility for the bombing.

Nonetheless, Pompeo hailed the U.S.-led campaign as “a tremendous success.”

“We can be proud of what we achieved but it’s time for the next step,” Pompeo said, adding that his objectives were based on two demands from President Donald Trump: Draw down troops as quickly as possible while also maintaining American security.

Trump has made a number of moves in recent months, as the November election approaches, to begin fulfilling a 2016 promise to get the U.S. out of what he called “endless wars.” On Wednesday, he announced further troop reductions in Iraq.

In exchange for the initial U.S. troop pullout, the Taliban pledged to cut ties with all terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and prevent Afghan territories from becoming militant havens.

Pompeo made clear the U.S. calculus would be based on whether terrorist groups find safe haven in Afghanistan and the risks posed to Americans in the U.S., not necessarily the fate of the Afghan government. He said it was the turn of Afghan leaders to control the fate of their country.

“I’m mindful of how difficult these conversations will be among the Afghans but it’s theirs for the taking,” Pompeo said.“It’s their country to try to figure out how to move forward and make a better life for all the Afghan people.”

The U.S. approach has raised fears the Trump administration is prepared to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and abandon the Afghan government regardless of what happens. Trump and many other observers have argued the U.S. doesn’t have the responsibility -- or the capability -- to protect Afghans.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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