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Taliban would welcome U.S. troop withdrawal by Christmas

The Afghan Taliban on Thursday welcomed a tweet from President Donald Trump in which he proposed having U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Christmas.

If that withdrawal happens, it would be months ahead of schedule, and the tweet made no reference to a Taliban promise to fight terrorist groups — a previous prerequisite for an American withdrawal.

America’s exit from Afghanistan after 19 years was laid out in an agreement Washington reached with the Taliban in February. However, that agreement said U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan in 18 months, provided the Taliban honoured a commitment to fight terrorist groups, with most attention seemingly focused on the ISIS group’s affiliate in the country.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed said Trump’s statement was welcome, and he considered it a positive step for the implementation of the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

The Taliban are “committed to the contents of the agreement and hope for good and positive relations with all countries, including the U.S, in the future,” he said.

In his tweet, Trump said, “we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.”

In an interview with Fox Business on Thursday, Trump said, “19 years is enough. They’re acting as policemen. They’re not acting as troops.”

Donald Trump’s comments on the planned U.S. troop presence did not fully align with those made the same day by White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien, pictured Tuesday in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

Just hours before Trump’s tweet, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the U.S. had less than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan currently and would go down to 2,500 by early 2021.

“Ultimately, the Afghans themselves are going to have to work out an accord, a peace agreement.… It’s going to be slow progress. It’s going to be hard progress, but we think it’s a necessary step — we think Americans need to come home,” O’Brien told an event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The discrepancy between the Trump and O’Brien comments has yet to be clarified by the administration.

Progress of talks unclear

Trump’s surprise tweet late Wednesday came as the Taliban and the Afghan government-appointed negotiating team are holding historic peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

Those talks have been painfully slow as both sides have become bogged down on the intricacies of how they would go forward with reaching an agreement. Weeks have been spent discussing Islamic jurisprudence and how it will impact negotiations.

Still, both sides have stayed at the negotiating table even as Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week returned to the region. Little information of substance has emerged from the talks.

The Taliban have never detailed the commitments it made in the February peace agreement with the U.S., and Washington has refused to give details, citing security concerns.

Even as the warring sides meet in Doha to map out what a post-conflict Afghanistan might look like, Washington and NATO have already begun reducing their troop numbers. Washington had an estimated 13,000 troops in Afghanistan when it signed the agreement with the Taliban on Feb. 29.

Trump’s comments caught most Afghan observers by surprise, and the Afghan government did not immediately respond to the tweet.

This is not the first time Trump has undercut the Pentagon with announcements about troop strength in Afghanistan. He previously had publicly announced American troop strength without vetting by the Pentagon, which has not yet responded to Trump’s tweet.

Trump has long promised to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and the agreement with the Taliban does not require the two Afghan sides reach a deal before Washington withdraws.

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