A U.S. official says U.S. forces have begun leaving Afghanistan under the first phase of an initial troop withdrawal required under the newly signed U.S.-Taliban peace agreement.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press on March 9 that hundreds of U.S. soldiers are now heading out of Afghanistan.
He said the soldiers originally were meant to leave under a rotation plan created before the peace deal was signed in Doha on February 29.
With the peace deal, however, the official said the departing U.S. soldiers will not be replaced.
That means the United States is now effectively moving ahead with an initial reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 soldiers.
The long-term plan is for the United States to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan within 14 months if security conditions are met.
But a political dispute over the official results of Afghanistan's September 2019 presidential election threatens to complicate Washington's attempts to move forward on the U.S.-Taliban agreement and end Afghanistan's 18-year war.
Afghanistan's rival leaders -- President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah -- were each sworn in as president in separate, parallel ceremonies on March 9.
Ghani has been declared the official winner of last September's election. But Abdullah, claiming widespread election fraud, insists that he is Afghanistan's legitimate president.
He has vowed to set up his own government.
The creation of parallel Afghan governments threatens to undermine the next key steps under the peace accord and could lead to new violence.
Washington has not tied the U.S. withdrawal to political stability in Afghanistan or any specific outcome from intra-Afghan peace talks that are scheduled to start on March 10.
Instead, it depends on the Taliban meeting its commitment to prevent “any group or individual, including Al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said March 2 that he had already approved the start of a U.S. withdrawal that is to be coordinated by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.
Esper has said the top U.S. commander in Kabul, General Scott Miller, will pause the withdrawal and assess conditions once the troop level goes down to 8,600.