For the first time since in almost two decades, the Afghan government and the Taliban will hold peace talks, said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who will attend the opening ceremony of intra-Afghan negotiations on Sept. 12 in Doha, Qatar.
“It’s really historic,” Pompeo said.
The aim of these “contentious discussions” will be “to reduce violence and deliver what the Afghan people are demanding: a reconciled Afghanistan with a government that reflects the country, that isn’t at war,” Pompeo said to press traveling with him to Doha.
“That will give the American people the opportunity to reduce the risks to our young men and women who have been there … almost 20 years now” to help the Afghan people “to take down al-Qaida in Afghanistan,” Pompeo said calling the American mission in Afghanistan “a tremendous success.”
There are still “less than a couple of hundred al-Qaida left in Afghanistan. The vast majority of their senior leadership is no longer on the battlefield,” Pompeo said.
The intra-Afghan negotiations will be very difficult for Afghans, but “it’s theirs for the taking.
It’s their country to figure out how to move forward and make a better life for all Afghan people,” Pompeo added.
President Donald Trump’s announced on Thursday at a press briefing the reduction of American troops Afghanistan to about 4,000 troops in “in a very short period of time.”
“I got a report this morning that there’s been nobody killed in Afghanistan since early February,” Trump said.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie the commander of U.S. Central Command said troop levels in Afghanistan would drop to 4,500 by November. He made the statement in a telephone call with a small group of reporters, according to officials at his Central Command office.
He said the path to 4,500 would be determined in part by the military’s ability to get equipment out of the country.
There is still a significant number of international forces on in Afghanistan who carried out the mission there along with U.S. soldiers “who have sacrificed as well in this fight for the last 19-plus years,” and the United States wants its international allies to reduce the risk to their forces and bring them back home, Pompeo said.
On February 29, the United States signed a peace agreement (pdf) with Taliban militants aimed at bringing an end to 18 years of bloodshed in Afghanistan and allowing U.S. troops to return home from America’s longest war.
As part of the deal, the United States would withdraw troops within 14 months. In exchange, the Taliban committed to preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacks.
Pompeo said that Trump’s goal is to reduce the American presence in Afghanistan to “as close to zero” and as quickly as possible but the reduction “can’t sacrifice security for the homeland.”
The reduction of the American forces is conditioned however on the Taliban’s adherence to “their obligations under the agreement,” in particular “the violence levels have to come down to acceptable levels.”
“There’s jihadists in the world still. There’s still counterterrorism work to do,” Pompeo said.
The U.S. will evaluate the fulfillment of the conditions the Taliban committed to in the agreement to determine risks that “al-Qaida has places to grow” and the external attacks take place in Afghanistan, to make the next set of decisions regarding troop withdrawal.
Taliban has every incentive to comply with the agreement but if it puts Americans at risk it will face consequences, Pompeo said adding that the United States will have a sufficient posture there to protect Americans.
The United States may even resort to sending its troops back even a few years from now if there is a risk to American security, Pompeo said citing Trump.
“We’ll execute the mission in a way that will protect and preserve American security,” Pompeo said.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Within months, U.S. troops defeated the Taliban and forced the al-Qaeda terrorist group to flee to Pakistan. But the war continued as the United States sought to stabilize the country before withdrawing its forces.
Ivan Pentchoukov and The Associated Press contributed to this report.