KABUL • American forces have started pulling out of two bases in Afghanistan, said a US official yesterday, the day peace talks between Kabul and the Taleban were due to start despite widespread violence and a political crisis.
The United States is keen to end its longest-ever military conflict and, under the terms of a deal signed in Doha last month, has said all foreign forces will quit Afghanistan within 14 months - provided the Taleban stick to its security commitments.
The US has called for a vote at the United Nations Security Council to endorse Washington's deal with the Taleban, said diplomats. The call came after hard negotiations that began one week ago, said diplomats on Monday.
Under the deal, the US is to cut its troop presence from about 12,000 now to 8,600 by the middle of July and close five of its roughly 20 bases across the country.
Troops have started leaving one base in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south, and another base in Herat in the east, said a US official on the condition of anonymity.
Even with the drawdown, US forces retain "all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives", said Colonel Sonny Leggett, spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan, on Monday. He was referring to American counter-terrorism operations and support for Afghan forces.
Helmand, which along with neighbouring Kandahar province is considered a Taleban stronghold, is where US and British forces fought some of the bloodiest campaigns of the 18-year war.
Mr Omar Zwak, spokesman for Helmand's governor, said "20 to 30" foreigners had left Lashkar Gah since the weekend.
The initial drawdown comes as the Taleban, which sees itself as having achieved "victory" over the US, tests the Pentagon's resolve to protect local partners by conducting dozens of low-level attacks against Afghan forces.
The US has responded to only a few of these attacks.
Under the terms of the withdrawal deal, the Taleban is supposed to tackle militants such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Al-Qaeda, as well as hold talks with the Afghan government that were due to start yesterday.
But Kabul is in disarray and appears unable to present a unified front to negotiate with the Taleban.
On Monday, President Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated for a second term following an election that was marred by fraud allegations while his rival, former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, also declared himself winner and swore himself in as premier in a parallel ceremony.
Peace talks scheduled for yesterday have been delayed by a dispute over the release of Taleban prisoners - something the insurgents have demanded as a prerequisite ahead of negotiations, but which Mr Ghani has so far refused to do.
Mr Ghani was expected to announce a decree on the issue yesterday, and reveal details of the negotiating team.
Washington has denounced Mr Abdullah's self-inauguration, urging unity in Kabul ahead of negotiations with the Taleban.
Without explicitly naming Mr Abdullah, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday: "We strongly oppose any action to establish a parallel government, and any use of force to resolve political differences.
"Prioritising an inclusive government and unified Afghanistan is paramount for the future of the country and particularly for the cause of peace."