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US starts troops pullout and seeks end to Afghan leaders’ feud

Ashraf Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, were each sworn in as president in separate ceremonies on Monday.

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has promised to start releasing Taliban prisoners (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has promised to start releasing Taliban prisoners (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has promised to start releasing Taliban prisoners (Rahmat Gul/AP)

The United States has begun withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, taking a step forward in its peace deal with the Taliban.

Officials also praised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s promise to start releasing Taliban prisoners after he had delayed for more than a week.

The US-Taliban deal signed on February 29 was touted as Washington’s effort to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan. The next crucial step was to be intra-Afghan talks in which all factions, including the Taliban, would negotiate a road map for their country’s future.

Afghanistan
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, centre, second Vice President Sarwar Danish, right, and first Vice President Amrullah Saleh, left, at an inauguration ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan (Rahmat Gul/AP)

But Mr Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, were each sworn in as president in separate ceremonies on Monday. Mr Abdullah and the elections complaints commission had alleged fraud in last year’s vote.

The duelling inaugurations have thrown plans for talks with the Taliban into chaos, although Mr Ghani said on Tuesday that he would start putting together a negotiating team.

The disarray on the Afghan government side is indicative of the uphill task facing Washington’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, as he tries to get Afghanistan’s bickering leadership to come together.

Mr Khalilzad said on Twitter that he hoped the two leaders can “come to an agreement on an inclusive and broadly accepted government. We will continue to assist”.

Afghanistan Politics
Abdullah Abdullah, front left, greets his supporters after being sworn in as president in Kabul, Afghanistan (AP)

US military spokesman in Afghanistan Sonny Leggett said the military has begun its “conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days”.

Currently, the US has about 13,000 soldiers in Afghanistan – 8,000 of whom are involved in training and advising Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, while about 5,000 are involved in anti-terror operations and militarily supporting the Afghan army when they are requested.

Mr Ghani had been dragging his feet on releasing some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, something agreed to in the US-Taliban deal.

He promised on Monday to announce a decree to free the prisoners, after the US and a number of foreign dignitaries appeared to back his claim to the presidency by sending their representatives to his inauguration.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement on Monday saying: “We also welcome President Ghani’s announcement that he will issue a decree March 10 on Taliban prisoner release.”

Taliban officials said late on Monday that a flurry of biometric identifications were being carried out on Taliban prisoners, hinting at a mass release, according to current inmates.

Mr Pompeo also said he “strongly opposed” the establishment of a parallel government in Kabul, despite the early signs of one emerging.

Mr Abdullah had quickly sent his vice-presidents to occupy the official offices on Monday, ahead of Mr Ghani’s plan to send his vice presidents to their offices on Tuesday.

Mr Pompeo warned against “any use of force to resolve political differences”.

Both candidates – but particularly Mr Abdullah – are backed by warlords with heavily armed militias, underlining fears that they could use force to back their candidate.

The US has said its partial troop withdrawal over an 18-month period provided for in the deal will be linked to the Taliban keeping their promises to help fight terror in Afghanistan, but not to the success of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Over the weekend, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said the insurgent group were committed to their agreement with the US and called on Washington to do its part to make sure their prisoners were freed.

Afghanistan
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, centre, opens his coat after IS fired rockets during his inauguration speech (Rahmat Gul/AP)

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a rocket attack that took place during Nr Ghani’s inauguration ceremony.

IS also claimed a brutal attack last week on a gathering of minority Shiites that killed 32 and injured scores more.

The US in reaching its deal with the Taliban said it expected the Taliban, which has been battling Afghanistan’s IS affiliate, to further aid in the effort to defeat IS.

PA