The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is considerably ahead of schedule, an official told AFP on Wednesday, as President Donald Trump reiterated calls for the Pentagon to bring troops home.
The developments came as questions loomed over the next phase of Afghanistan's long war, with the expiry of a three-day ceasefire and an anxious wait to see when violence might return.
Under a deal the US signed with the Taliban in February, the Pentagon was to bring troop levels down from about 12,000 to 8,600 by mid-July, before withdrawing all forces by May 2021.
But a senior US defense official said the troop number was already at about 7,500, as commanders look to accelerate the withdrawal because of fears over the coronavirus pandemic.
"The drawdown was accelerated due to COVID-19 precautions," the official told AFP, noting that the departure of anyone with underlying health concerns or over a certain age was being prioritized.
Trump on Tuesday told reporters the US force level was "down to 7,000-some-odd soldiers right now".
The next day he returned to a frequent complaint that America should not be acting as a "police force" in Afghanistan.
"After 19 years, it is time for them to police their own Country," Trump wrote on Twitter.
"Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!"
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said in a statement the US was adhering to its agreement with the Taliban.
Any further drawdown would come "after the US government assesses the security environment and the Taliban's compliance with the agreement", he added.
- Calls to extend ceasefire -
Afghanistan has just enjoyed a rare respite in its nearly 19-year-old war, after the Taliban called a three-day ceasefire to mark the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr.
But the historic pause, only the second of its type, expired Wednesday and calls for the Taliban to renew it went unanswered, though there were no immediately confirmed reports of major violence.
The Afghan government said it would continue with the release of Taliban prisoners that had been agreed in the US deal with the insurgents and is seen as key to kickstarting long-delayed peace talks.
On Tuesday, the Afghan military freed about 1,000 Taliban inmates, mostly from Bagram jail near Kabul, as part of a pledge to release up to 2,000 insurgents in response to the Taliban-led ceasefire.
On Wednesday, a senior Taliban member told AFP that in return, the insurgents were planning to free about 50 to 100 Afghan security force members as early as Thursday.
Top Afghan officials have demanded the Taliban extend the ceasefire and offered to reciprocate.
"If the Taliban are ready to extend the ceasefire, we are ready to continue the ceasefire too," National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal said on Tuesday.
The future of talks with the insurgents "depends on the Taliban's next move", he added.
The release of prisoners by both sides is part of a US-Taliban deal, which excluded the Afghan government, that stipulates Kabul would release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the militants would free about 1,000 national security personnel.
Kabul had already freed about 1,000 Taliban inmates before the ceasefire, while the insurgents had released about 300 government captives.
© 2020 AFP