US to start Afghan withdrawal with 5,000 troops out in 20 weeks

Ben Farmer
America has around 14,000 troops in Afghanistan - REUTERS

America has agreed in principle to withdraw 5,000 troops from five military bases in 20 weeks, in a deal with the Taliban to kick start talks with the Afghan government.

The accord which could be announced as early as Wednesday would see US troops begin to pull back from their longest ever conflict, in return for a reduction in Taliban attacks and the start of formal negotiations with Ashraf Ghani's government.

A large blast hit Kabul on Monday evening, close to a heavily fortified compound housing international organisations.The Green Village compound has been struck by several suicide car combs in the past. There was no immediate report of casualties.

The deal brokered over nine rounds of talks in Doha has yet to be signed off by Donald Trump and Mr Ghani was last night consulting with officials after being shown the latest draft of the prospective agreement. Nato allies including Britain will also be briefed on the deal before any announcement. Yet Western officials familiar the talks said final go ahead could be given as early as Wednesday or Thursday.

“Yes, we have reached an agreement in principle,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US negotiator, told told Tolo news. “Of course, it is not final until the US president agrees on it. So, at the moment, we are at that stage.”

Sources briefed on talks stressed the US troop withdrawal would be “conditions-based”, with an insistence by Washington that the Taliban violence reduced significantly and almost immediately. The Taliban have so far refused a complete ceasefire.

The draft accord has been brokered over nine rounds of talks in Doha, Qatar Credit: AFP

After the first tranche of 5,000 of America's 14,000-odd troops had left, the rest would gradually leave the country over 15 months or more. If the Taliban failed to meet the conditions then America would “stop the clock” on the withdrawal however.

Other details of the draft agreement remained closely guarded, including details of guarantees to be given by the Taliban that Afghanistan would not again become a base for transnational terrorist such as al-Qaeda.

Sources said the most significant part of the agreement would be the start of talks between Afghan political leaders and the Taliban. Mr Ghani's government has so far been shut out of talks with the Taliban declaring it is only an American puppet. The country risks slipping back into civil war unless the sides can agree a wider political settlement on how to run Afghanistan after America has left.

The sides could meet in Oslo as early as later this month and a wider ceasefire is likely to be high on the Afghan government agenda. While there is widespread desire among Afghans for an end to the bloodshed killing thousands of security forces and civilians a year. But there is also fear the Taliban want to reimpose their harsh Islamic emirate of the 1990s, rolling back civil and women's rights

Counter terrorism officials in Washington are also worried the Taliban will be unable or unwilling to prevent terrorist groups setting up bases in Afghanistan, just as al-Qaeda did before the 9/11 attacks.

It is also unclear whether voting in the impending presidential election will continue if a deal is signed. Polling at the end of September is predicted to follow previous Afghan elections in being riddled with fraud and bitterly disputed. Mr Ghani, seen as the leading candidate, is adamant elections must continue, but American diplomats are understood to be concerned a flawed and contested poll will only detract from talks.