The top U.S. commander for the Middle East expressed disappointment in Taliban commitments to the newly signed peace plan, saying the current levels of violence are "higher" than allowed in the agreement.
“To date, Taliban attacks are higher than we believe are consistent with an idea to actually carry out this plan,” Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on Tuesday. “If they're unable to draw down the current level of attacks, then the political leadership will be able to make decisions based on that.”
In turn, he told the committee the U.S. “has not developed military plans” for the complete withdrawal in 14 months called for in the peace plan signed Feb. 29, but he said he has plans to cut the number by summer.
McKenzie said he has no confidence the group will honor its commitments but said his projections on the matter are irrelevant because any decisions will be based on facts and what happens on the ground.
At the same time, American troops began their withdrawal from the region. Sonny Leggett, the U.S. military’s spokesman in the Middle Eastern country, said in a statement Tuesday that the military had begun its “conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days.” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani promised on Monday to start releasing Taliban prisoners, but by Tuesday had made no moves to do so.
Currently, the U.S. has about 13,000 soldiers in Afghanistan -- 8,000 of whom are involved in training and advising the country’s National Security Forces, while about 5,000 others are involved in anti-terror operations.
The Pentagon’s top spokesman Jonathan Hoffman seemed more optimistic, saying Defense Secretary Mark Esper believes the U.S.-Taliban deal is holding up, despite a few instances of violence, some of which is being committed by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate.
“While levels are not as low as some would like them to be, we’ve seen progress and we hope that that continues to hold.” He said Esper would like to see the number of attacks drop to zero, but this is not a requirement of the deal.
Kathryn Wheelbarger, a top Pentagon policy adviser, agreed with Mckenzie that America’s troop withdrawal would be contingent on whether the Taliban committed to tapering down violence to levels within the agreement.
The U.S. signed a historic deal with the Taliban on Saturday in efforts to draw down the 18-year war in Afghanistan, a crucial preceding step to intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Trump administration expressed optimism about the deal, and days later President Trump said he had a “good talk” with a leader of the Taliban, and insisted the group plans to cease violence.
“I spoke to the leader of the Taliban today,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn. “We had a very good talk.”
When asked if he believes the Afghan government would be capable of defending itself by the time U.S. fully withdraws, Trump said he didn’t know but “eventually, countries have to take care of themselves.”
Just days later, the Taliban carried out attacks against Afghan forces, killing four civilians and 11 troops. Afghan forces killed at least 17 Taliban members in the clash. The U.S. conducted a "defensive" airstrike against four Taliban whom he said were “actively attacking” an Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF) checkpoint, according to Leggett.
Leggett, who called on the militant group to uphold its commitments to the peace deal signed on Feb. 29, added that Taliban forces had conducted 43 attacks on Afghan troops on Tuesday in the same province.
McKenzie on Tuesday said he would recommend against a full withdrawal if Afghan forces could not protect their own country without direct U.S. support and if attacks continued. McKenzie was asked what evidence the U.S. has seen that the Taliban has cut ties with Al Qaeda. McKenzie said it is clear the Taliban are actively fighting against the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan but said he is "less optimistic" about Al Qaeda.
“That’s something they [the Taliban] are going to have to demonstrate that has not yet been demonstrated,” he said of the Taliban proving they had severed ties with the extremist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He said the U.S. had "ample time to see if they actually do that" before a full withdrawal.
McKenzie insisted the U.S. needs to stay vigilant about threats from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State or they will gain the capability to attack on U.S. soil.
"The best intelligence estimates tell us that if we do not maintain pressure on those two entities, that in a period of time -- and you can say a year, you can say two years, you can say somewhere in between -- they’re going generate the ability to do external attacks again, and that will manifest itself here in the United States,” McKenzie said.
Plans to begin intra-Afghan talks were thrown through a loop Tuesday after both Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah were sworn in as president in separate ceremonies Monday. Abdulah and the elections complaints commission had accused last year's vote of fraudulence. The U.S. and a number of foreign dignitaries backed Ghani's claim to the presidency, and Ghani said he would start putting together a negotiating team.
Fox News' Lucia Suarez-Sang and Adam Shaw contributed to this report, as well as The Associated Press.