KABUL -- The United States has reduced its military presence in Afghanistan to the level negotiated with the Taliban, the top US commander for the region said Thursday (June 18).
The number of troops was cut to about 8,600 in line with a peace deal agreed with the insurgents in February, said Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, warning that conditions must be met for a full withdrawal by next year.
It is a "conditions-based approach", McKenzie said, and "conditions would have to be met that satisfy us -- that attacks against our homeland are not going to be generated from Afghanistan."
"What we need to see is what they're going to do against al-Qaeda," he said of the group responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York.
"And so we're very focused on what the Taliban is doing, how they're participating in these negotiations as we go forward," he told a panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, June 18. "The jury is still very much out."
The Taliban were "no friends" of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), but Washington needs to see "deeds and not words" about what they would do against al-Qaeda, said McKenzie.
The Taliban Friday (June 19) said said it was committed to the February deal, "especially the US's and the West's concern about a threat to them from Afghanistan".
"Our country will not be used against anyone. They should not be concerned," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP.
The deal calls for all US and other foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by mid-2021 in return for security guarantees from the insurgents and a pledge to hold peace negotiations with the government in Kabul.
The Afghan government, which has moved closer to talks with the Taliban in recent weeks, has long accused the insurgents of providing a platform to groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda to carry out attacks in the country.
Taliban-Al Qaeda ties
A recent report submitted to the United Nations (UN) Security Council highlighted the Taliban's extensive and ongoing ties with al-Qaeda.
"Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, and al-Qaeda remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage," the May 27 report said.
"The Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties," it said.
The Taliban, despite pledging to turn their backs on the terrorist group, have enabled al-Qaeda to gain strength under their protection, according to the UN monitors, the evidence suggests.
"Al-Qaeda and the Taliban held meetings over the course of 2019 and in early 2020 to discuss co-operation related to operational planning, training and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for al-Qaeda members inside Afghanistan," the report said.
Al-Qaeda is covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces, and the group is comprised of "between 400 and 600 armed operatives", said UN monitors.