Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that the U.S. plans to go ahead with troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, starting in just days, despite renewed violence and a spate of objections raised by the Kabul government to the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.
Esper said he had directed Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, "to get moving" on drawing down U.S. forces from about 12,000 to 8,600 under the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed Saturday in Doha, Qatar.
"We are going to show good faith and begin withdrawing our troops," he said.
"I don't know if it's actually, physically begun" as yet, Esper said of the withdrawals. He added that Miller "has my approval to begin at his pace."
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The plan is to reduce the U.S. troop presence to 8,600 within 135 days from March 1, he said.
At a joint news conference with Esper at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said he was aware of the bomb blast near a soccer field in contested Khost province that killed at least three civilians Monday, but said, "We don't know exactly who did that yet."
He cautioned that the U.S.-Taliban agreement does not guarantee that "there's going to be an absolute cessation of violence. To think it's going to go to zero immediately -- that is not going to be the case."
As a veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan, Milley said, "I fully support the agreement we signed over the weekend."
"This was an important step" toward the eventual full withdrawal of U.S. forces, possibly within 14 months, and a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Kabul government, he added.
"The best opportunity to end the war is now," Milley said. The agreement with the Taliban "provides the best hope for a peaceful future for the people of Afghanistan."
During the withdrawal process, Esper said the U.S. will continue counter-terror operations against the Islamic State offshoot known as Islamic State-Khorasan province, or ISIS-K, and other insurgents.
He also warned of setbacks ahead.
"This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road" on the way to ending the nation's longest war, which began in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Esper said.
If the U.S. succeeds in drawing down to 8,600 troops within 135 days, "we can pause it," he said.
"We'll go to 8,600, and we'll stop. We'll go to that point we'll assess the situation" to decide whether to continue pulling troops out, he said.
During the withdrawal process, the U.S. will be "watching the actions of the Taliban closely" to verify their commitment to the peace deal, Esper said.
Both Esper and Milley took note of the immediate objections voiced by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the U.S.-Taliban agreement -- from which the Kabul government was excluded.
Ghani singled out clauses in the deal signed by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with Taliban leaders calling for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners by March 10, to allow for the first talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban on a peace settlement.
"Just technically, it's not possible to release 5,000 prisoners," Ghani said on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" Sunday, adding that the process involved a painstaking process of vetting each individual. He accused the Taliban of setting preconditions for negotiations.
He also said the Taliban eventually would have to give up its safe havens in Pakistan to become a partner in governing Afghanistan.
In addition, the Taliban in the agreement with Khalilzad made no commitment to end its lucrative involvement in Afghanistan's opium trade, which accounts for about 30 percent of the country's economy, according to United Nations estimates, Ghani said.
"Their relationship with drug cartels" must come to an end, he said of the Taliban. As it stands, the U.S.-Taliban agreement "will be either a Trojan horse or the beginning of a much worse phase of conflict," he said.
Veterans service organizations have generally responded with cautious support for the agreement, which holds out the prospect for an end to U.S. involvement in more than 18 years of war.
"We welcome this agreement," American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford said in a statement Saturday. But he warned of peril in trusting the Taliban.
"Terrorists lie," he said. "At the same time, we are humane and deeply respect the sacrifices made by so many American families. Nobody hates war more than veterans, and The American Legion would like nothing more than seeing the nearly two-decade conflict in Afghanistan end."
The agreement drew criticism from more than 20 House Republicans in the form of a letter organized by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, to Esper and Milley.
Referring to President Donald Trump's reputation as a real estate investor, the letter states, "He knows a bad deal when he sees one."
It adds, "We urge you not to commit America to a dangerous deal with the Taliban that would abandon the President's track record of strengthening America and putting our security and interests first."
One of the co-signers was Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a former Navy SEAL who lost his right eye to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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