First U.S. troops begin to leave Afghanistan as part of peace deal with Taliban

(USA Features) The first American troops are set to leave Afghanistan as part of a peace deal signed with Taliban leaders in late February, ahead of a full withdrawal over the course of months.

U.S. Army Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. force in Afghanistan, said in a statement the U.S. will move forward with plans to trim force levels from about 13,000 to 8,600 over the next four-and-a-half months.

Another U.S. official said that hundreds of American troops have already left the country as previously planned and they will not be replaced, The Associated Press reported.

The withdrawal comes as rival leaders in Afghanistan were each sworn in as president in separate ceremonies Monday. The arrangement will complicate U.S. negotiations moving forward regarding any deal to end the 18-year war.

“The sharpening dispute between President Ashraf Ghani, who was declared the winner of last September’s election, and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who charged fraud in the vote along with the elections complaints commission, threatens to wreck the next key steps and even risks devolving into new violence,” the AP reported.

The Trump administration has not linked the withdrawal of U.S. forces to political stability in Afghanistan or any specific outcome from the all-Afghan peace negotiations.

Rather, the U.S. commitment depends on the Taliban meeting its pledge to prevent “any group or individual, including al-Qaida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”

Under the terms of the peace agreement, American troop withdrawals were to begin within 10 days following the signing of the deal Feb. 29.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said March 2 that he had approved the start of the withdrawal, which would be coordinated by U.S. military commanders in-country.

Esper also noted that Gen. Scott Miller, the U.S. commander in Kabul, will pause the withdrawal and assess conditions once the troop level goes down to 8,600.

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