Exclusive: Taliban Welcomes Trump Troop Drawdown in Afghanistan as 'Practical Step' Toward Peace

The Taliban has welcomed the Pentagon chief's announcement that President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of around 2,000 troops from Afghanistan, a move the group told Newsweek would serve as a constructive measure toward ending the United States' nearly two-decade war in the country.

Newly appointed Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced Tuesday that the Pentagon was drawing down the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq from 4,500 and 3,000 to 2,500 in each country by January 15 of next year at the behest of Trump, who looks set to leave office just five days later, and "at the recommendation" of his top military officials.

"This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives supported by the American people and does not equate to a change in U.S. policy," Miller said.

Trump has long pledged to end the "endless wars" launched by his predecessors, especially vowing to wind down the United States' longest war by bringing troops home from Afghanistan after striking a peace deal with longtime foe the Taliban, officially the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, in March.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, a spokesperson for the Taliban's political office in Qatar called the move "a practical step towards ending Afghanistan's nearly 20-year war and toward the country's independence under the agreement reached between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the United States."

Such an outcome would benefit all parties, the spokesperson said.

"It is hoped that the agreement will be implemented properly and efficiently, which is in the interest of both sides and the people," the spokesperson said. "Both sides must abide by the agreement. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan reiterates its commitment to the agreement."

afghan, taliban, celebrate, peace, deal
Afghan Taliban members and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2. The U.S. agreed to a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in exchange for peace talks with the government in Kabul and an assurance that the country would not be allowed to become a safe haven for militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan's embassy in Washington declined Newsweek's request for comment. Earlier this month, however, Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Roya Rahmani cautioned against a premature pullout that did not take into account a demonstration of the Taliban's adherence to the burgeoning peace process.

"We understand the fatigue in America, but withdrawal must be measured and strategic in order to preserve the gains that Americans and Afghans have sacrificed so much for," Rahmani told Newsweek at the time. "Without withdrawal being conditional, there would be a lack of incentive for the Taliban to fully commit to the ongoing peace process."

Miller did not elaborate Tuesday on whether the Taliban had met specific conditions to trigger the latest drawdown, and a quarterly report by the lead inspector general for Operation Freedom Sentinel in Afghanistan released that gave no conclusive answer either.

"It is unclear at this point whether the Taliban is upholding its commitments," the report said. "While the Taliban has generally honored its obligation to cease attacks against U.S. forces and interests in Afghanistan, it is difficult to discern the extent to which it is meeting the requirement that Afghanistan not serve as a haven for terrorists who threaten the United States."

It also noted that the group "has escalated its attacks on Afghan forces, which threatens to derail the peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government that began this quarter."

In exchange for the Taliban's promise to participate in ongoing peace talks with the central government in Kabul and to actively curtail the presence of militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State's local Khorasan branch (ISIS-K), the U.S. has promised to withdraw all non-diplomatic personnel by May 21 of next year.

U.S. troops downs have gradually been drawn out of a country that once hosted as many as 100,000 and, under the terms of Tuesday's decision would soon roughly the same number that has been killed—alongside tens of thousands of Afghans—since the 2001 intervention just weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

The Taliban then controlled much of Afghanistan and the group was targeted due to its partnership with Al-Qaeda. A U.S.-led campaign beat back both groups but has since contended with an influential insurgency that has regained ground in recent years.

Even today, continued violence by both ISIS-K and the Taliban continues in spite of the inter-Afghan peace effort.

U.S. coordinator on counterterrorism Nathan A. Sales referred to the Pentagon when asked by reporters Tuesday about the troop drawdown announcement but reaffirmed the Trump administration's ongoing commitment to tackling the ISIS-K threat in Afghanistan.

"We continue to regard ISIS-K as a substantial terrorist threat, and we've worked hard with the Afghan government to bolster its capabilities, to protect its institutions, and to protect the Afghan people against this threat, including through funding and training and equipping crisis response teams that have been incredibly successful at addressing the ISIS-K threat," Sales said.

President-elect Joe Biden, whose projected victory in the presidential election Trump continues to dispute, has also railed against "endless wars" waged by the U.S. in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Taliban have urged the former vice president to stay the course as detailed in the peace deal after he's expected to take office on January 20.

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.