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US finalizing plan to withdraw 4,000 troops from Afghanistan

The Trump administration is close to finalizing a decision to withdraw more than 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the fall, according to two administration officials.

The move would reduce the number of troops from 8,600 to 4,500, which would be the lowest number since the very earliest days of the war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001.

While the decision is not final, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper discussed the plan with NATO allies last week and the topic was revisited in his meetings with NATO officials in Brussels Friday.

“We will also follow up on our discussion on Afghanistan. NATO will continue to adjust our presence in support of the peace process,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday alongside Esper before their meeting, adding: “This will be done in close coordination with Allies and partners.”

Under the agreement signed with the Taliban in February, the US committed to pulling all of its troops out of Afghanistan by next April — within 14 months of its signing — if the Taliban upheld certain commitments in the agreement. The Taliban committed to preventing terrorist groups using Afghan territory to threaten the US and its allies, breaking ties with groups that threaten the US, and pursuing intra-Afghan negotiations.

“As part of that deal, the US also agreed to reduce the number of troops from about 13,000 to 8,600 by early July. The US has already hit that 8,600 figure, ahead of schedule,” two US officials told CNN.

“US force levels in Afghanistan remain in the mid-8,000s. Additional drawdowns beyond this number remain conditions-based according to the US Government’s assessment of the overall security environment and Taliban compliance with the US-Taliban agreement,” Pentagon spokesman Major Rob Lodewick, told CNN.

According to CNN the State Department and National Security Council did not reply to requests for comment.

Afghanistan gov’t weakened ahead of Taliban talks

A watchdog in the United States has warned that ‘systemic’ corruption within the Afghan government is weakening its bargaining position in upcoming peace negotiations with the Taliban, even as the armed group said that it was ready and had compiled its agenda for the long-awaited talks.

John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said that the Taliban and other fighters underscored the government’s corruption, using it to undermine public support for the government, garner recruits to their cause, and weaken the government’s bargaining position during future peace negotiations.

“It is the most insidious threat the Afghan government faces because it saps the support of citizens who are trying to go about their daily work, feed their families, and live free of fear and intimidation,” Sopko told a monitoring group known as Integrity Watch Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, about 50 civil society activists in Kabul rallied on Thursday against corruption, urging the International Monetary Fund to rescind a $220m loan given last month to the Afghan government to help mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.

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