Chief Afghan Peace Envoy Says US Troops Pulling Out Too Soon

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Afghanistan's chief peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah said Saturday that the U.S. decision to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan has come too soon, as his country is still struggling to attain peace and security amid an ongoing conflict.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Abdullah also described as “shocking” an Australian military report that found evidence that elite Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners. He welcomed a decision by Australian authorities to pursue the perpetrators.

Abdullah spoke in Ankara where he sought Turkey's support for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that are taking place in Qatar to find an end to decades of war. The talks have made little progress so far.

“This is the decision of the U.S administration and we respect it," Abdullah said of the U.S. decision this week to reduce troops levels in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500. “Our preference would have been that with the conditions improving, this should have taken place.”

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced that Washington would reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, in line with President Donald Trump's pledge to bring U.S. forces home.

Afghan officials have expressed concerns that a rapid reduction in American troops could strengthen the negotiating hand of the Taliban, while the militants are still waging a full-fledged insurgency against government forces.

“It's not like things will go as we wish,” Abdullah said, adding however, that he welcomed the fact 2,500 troops will remain and that NATO will also retain its presence.

The chief negotiator said he was confident that the United States will continue to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban during President-elect Joe Biden's administration.

“What form or what shape it will take that remains to be seen but they will certainly push for a peaceful settlement,” Abdullah said.

Abdullah, who shared power in Afghanistan's last government as chief executive and before that as foreign minister, cautioned that “a comprehensive settlement will come as a result of the negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” regardless of any possible new input by the new U.S. administration.

Washington signed a deal with the Taliban in February to pave the way for the Doha talks and American forces' eventual withdrawal. The Americans championed the deal as Afghanistan's best chance at a lasting peace.

Abdullah's meetings with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials came days after Australia revealed a report into war crimes that found evidence that elite Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians.

“It was shocking,” Abdullah said of the report, but welcomed the fact that Australia had “come clear about it. ”

He added: “there is the promise, the prospect of prosecution for those who have committed these heinous crimes that will count. This will help preventing these types of crimes."

The top Afghan official also said he had asked Turkey to “reenergize” its efforts in support of the peace process, and suggested that Turkey appoint a “special envoy” to support the negotiations.