The president’s decision to move to about 5,000 troops from 8,600 was the Pentagon’s preferred option of those proposed, defense officials said. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic has already greatly restricted U.S. military operations in the country, making some troops already deployed there next to useless because many of their roles require in-person training with Afghan forces.
As part of the February agreement, the U.S. military cut its numbers in Afghanistan to about 8,600 from 12,000 and closed several bases. Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were supposed to start months ago but have been held up over a prisoner exchange between the two sides.
Also part of the deal is a public declaration from the Taliban to denounce and split from Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and a longtime ally of the insurgent group. There has been little indication that has changed after the agreement, according to military officials.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on Monday with the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, regarding the prisoner exchange, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, said on Twitter.
Both sides “emphasized that the release of the remaining prisoners are essential for commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Mr. Shaheen said.
The U.S.-Taliban deal called for the Afghan government to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Taliban-held members of the Afghan security forces. While the Taliban has released the Afghan prisoners, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has been reluctant to release 400 Taliban prisoners accused of serious crimes.
On Sunday, militants stormed a prison in eastern Afghanistan, leaving 29 people dead. The attack, in the waning hours of a brief cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government, was claimed by the Islamic State affiliate in the country.