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Mixed Reactions Follow U.S. Announcement On Troop Cuts In Afghanistan

U.S. Marines disembark from an Osprey aircraft in the southren Afghan province of Helmand. (file photo)

Washington's announcement that the United States will slash troop levels in Afghanistan to their lowest in nearly 20 years has been met with mixed reactions over whether a premature departure could embolden extremist groups or ease tensions.

The Taliban militant group welcomed on November 18 the U.S. decision a day earlier to withdraw some 2,000 troops from Afghanistan by mid-January as a "good step" that will help put an end to the country's war.

But some U.S. allies voiced concern that precipitous drawdowns -- which would leave about 2,500 troops in the war-torn country -- could give up security gains after years of fighting.

Germany, which has hundreds of troops in northern Afghanistan, said the withdrawal could complicate ongoing intra-Afghan peace talks in Qatar.

"We should not create additional hurdles -- something that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan would most certainly lead to," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

U.S. President Donald Trump made ending overseas wars one of his key pledges. U.S. forces in Afghanistan have already been reduced from about 13,000 following a deal with the Taliban in February to open peace talks with the Kabul government in return for the withdrawal of American soldiers by May 2021.

U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller on November 17 announced the troop reduction in Afghanistan, saying that it would finish by January 15, just five days before Trump leaves office in a move that could tie the hands of his successor, Joe Biden.

"It is a good step and in the interest of the people of both countries," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on November 18, referring to the United States and Afghanistan.

"The sooner the foreign forces leave, the more the war will be prevented," Mujahid added.

Biden's transition team did not comment on the announcement, but the president-elect has noted that his team is not receiving national-security briefings from Trump's team, which is customary during the transition to a new administration.

The decision comes as violence in Afghanistan is on the rise. In Iraq on November 17, four rockets fell in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, an Iraqi military statement said. The zone houses government buildings and foreign missions.

Miller said the decision reflects Trump's policy "to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion and to bring our brave service members home."

Miller, who was named to the post last week, said he had spoken with military commanders, members of Congress, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about the move.

He said the United States would continue to stand with Ghani as his government works toward a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and would be ready to respond if conditions in Afghanistan or Iraq deteriorate.

Afghan National Security Council spokesman Rahmatullah Andar said that the Afghan security and defense forces “are already conducting 96 percent of the operations independently and are prepared to continue to defend the country against our enemies."

Stoltenberg sought to reassure the Afghan president of NATO's continued support.

"Discussed NATO's mission with @ashrafghani. We support the Afghanistan peace process... Even with the US reduction, NATO will continue to train, advise & assist the Afghan forces in their fight against international terrorism," he tweeted.

Stoltenberg previously warned that NATO could pay a heavy price for leaving Afghanistan in a swift and in an uncoordinated fashion, and some of Trump's Republican allies in Congress also voiced concerns about sudden troop reductions.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky), on November 17 cautioned against any major changes in U.S. defense or foreign policy in the next couple of months, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

McConnell warned on November 16 that a rapid reduction of troops from Afghanistan would give extremists a propaganda victory and amount to abandoning partners. He suggested that the move would leave room for the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan and the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda to rebuild.

Under an agreement signed in February between the Taliban and the United States, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for the Taliban committing to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other international militant groups. But full implementation of that deal faces many hurdles amid a lack of progress in peace negotiations between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Trump campaigned on ending military involvement abroad but has not substantially reduced the U.S. military imprint overseas while increasing some operations to counter Iran.

Trump’s national-security adviser Robert O’Brien said the president is keeping his promise to the American people to get U.S. troops out of war zones.

“By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety,” O’Brien told reporters at the White House shortly after Miller made the announcement at the Pentagon.

“I want to reiterate that this policy is not new,” O’Brien said. “This has been the president’s policy since he took office.”

Proponents of a U.S. military withdrawal point out the country has given much blood and treasure in engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 and 2003, respectively, and the United States has plenty of issues to address at home.

With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters, and RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan
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