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Pompeo meets Taliban, Afghan negotiators amid stalled talks

Washington: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met negotiators from the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, amidst signs of progress in their stalled talks and an uptick in violence that threatens to jeopardize the peace push in the war-torn country.

This was the first meeting of the top American diplomat with the Taliban and the Afghans representatives after the US’ recent announcement that it will reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 each by January 15 next year.

The US currently has a little over 4,500 troops in Afghanistan.

“Met with both Taliban and Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s negotiating teams in Doha. I commend both sides for continuing to negotiate and for the progress they have made. I encourage expedited discussions on a political roadmap and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” Pompeo said in a tweet.

Pompeo met with Taliban Political Deputy and Head of the Political Office Mullah Beradar and members of the Taliban negotiating team, State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown said.

During the meeting, Pompeo commended both sides for continuing to negotiate and for the progress they have made, he said.

The US signed an agreement with the Taliban in February to promote a negotiated end to the protracted conflict. Afghan government and Taliban negotiators have been meeting in Doha on a regular basis to try to broker a peace deal but have yet to yield any major breakthrough.

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Pentagon to cut troop levels to 2,500 in Afghanistan, Iraq

Washington: US President Donald Trump will issue a formal order to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq as soon as this week, according to media reports.

US media quoted officials as saying that the Pentagon had issued a notice to commanders to begin planning to decrease the number of troops to 2,500 level in both Afghanistan and Iraq by mid-January.

The 2,500-troop level in reports was in line with what Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said last month that US troops in Afghanistan would be reduced to around 2,500 by early 2021. Currently, there are approximately 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 troops in Iraq.

The reports came after a reshuffle of Pentagon leadership last week. President Trump appointed the director of the National Counterterrorism Center Christopher Miller as acting defense secretary to replace former Pentagon chief Mark Esper, who reportedly had been pushing back on a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the military organization could pay a heavy price for leaving Afghanistan too early.

“We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.

He said the conflict-ravaged country “risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And ISIS (Islamic State) could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”

NATO took charge of the international security effort in Afghanistan in 2003 and it relies heavily on the US armed forces to operate in Afghanistan.

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Taliban endorses Trump in US presidential race

Washington: United States President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has received an endorsement from Taliban with the latter hoping that the re-election would lead to withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told CBS News that they believe Trump is going to win the election “because he has proved himself a politician who accomplished all the major promises he had made to American people”.

“Although he might have missed some small things, but did accomplish the bigger promises, so it is possible that the US people who experienced deceptions in the past will once again trust Trump for his decisive actions,” Mujahid added.

On October 8, the Taliban welcomed an announcement by Trump on pulling out US troops by Christmas.

The Doha agreement, signed between the US and Taliban in February, drew up plans to pull out foreign forces from Afghanistan after two decades of war, in exchange for security guarantees from the insurgent group.

There are currently less than 5,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Pulling out of US forces from the country has been a long standing promise of Trump, something he is aiming to fulfil if he is re-elected in the November 3 presidential polls.

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US cuts troop presence in Afghanistan to 8,600

Kabul/Washington: As part of its agreement with the Taliban in February, the US has cut its troop presence in Afghanistan to 8,600, a top American General said.

“What I would tell you now is we have met our part of the agreement,” General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, told a panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute.

“We agreed to go to the mid-8,000 range within 135 days. We are at that number now,” McKenzie said.

He, however, did not provide any indication of when, or at what pace, US forces would be further reduced under the agreement.

Under the February deal reached with the Taliban, the United States agreed to reduce its forces in Afghanistan from 12,000 troops to 8,600 by mid-July.

The agreement calls for all US and foreign troops to quit Afghanistan by mid-2021, almost 20 years after the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda on New York and Washington.

He also said that full withdrawal was an “aspirational” commitment and that “conditions would have to be met in case of further attacks.

“Conditions would have to be met that satisfy us that attacks against our homeland are not going to be generated from Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s not the Taliban. That is, of course, al-Qaida and ISIS (ISIL),” referring to the violent group that used haven in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s previous rule to plan the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, as well as the ISIL group’s Afghanistan affiliate.

The Taliban had already committed in the agreement to cut their ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

“What we need to see is what they’re going to do against Al Qaeda. And we need to see that in deeds and not words,” McKenzie said.

President Donald Trump has been eager for a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan, stating that American forces are merely policing a civil conflict and should be brought home.

“We are ending the era of endless wars … we are not the policemen of the world,” Trump told the graduates of the US Military Academy.

The death toll of US service members has surpassed 2,400 since the country invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

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