U.S. commander in Middle East paints grim picture of peace plan

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WASHINGTON—The top U.S. commander for the Middle East painted a grim picture Tuesday of the peace process with the Taliban in Afghanistan, saying the current level of violence is higher than allowed in the plan and that he will recommend against full withdrawal if that continues.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told the House armed services committee that he has plans to cut the number of troops to 8,600 by the summer, but so far the U.S. “has not developed military plans” for the full withdrawal in 14 months that is called for in the peace plan signed Feb. 29.

“To date, Taliban attacks are higher than we believe are consistent with an idea to actually carry out this plan,” McKenzie said. “If they’re unable to draw down the current level of attacks, then the political leadership will be able to make decisions based on that.”

He added that he has no confidence the group will honour its commitments, but said his optimism or pessimism about the future doesn’t matter because any decisions will be based on facts and what happens on the ground.

U.S. President Donald Trump last week touted what he described as a “very good talk” with a Taliban leader, and insisted the group wants to cease violence. Asked if he believes the Afghan government will be capable of defending itself by the time of a complete U.S. troop withdrawal, he said he didn’t know, but noted, “eventually, countries have to take care of themselves.”

The Pentagon’s top spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, also offered a bit more optimism on Tuesday, saying Defence Secretary Mark Esper believes the U.S.-Taliban deal is holding up, despite some instances of violence, some of which is being committed by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate.

“While levels are not as low as some would like them to be, we’ve seen progress and we hope that that continues to hold.”

He said that while Esper would like to see the number of attacks drop to zero, that is not a requirement under the U.S.-Taliban agreement.

Both McKenzie and Kathryn Wheelbarger, a top Pentagon policy adviser on international affairs, said America’s complete troop withdrawal is contingent on whether the level of violence is reduced and the Taliban adheres to its commitments.

McKenzie said he would recommend against that full pullout if attacks continue and the Afghan forces can’t protect their own country without direct U.S. support. Wheelbarger called the full pullout “aspirational” and said Esper would reassess the matter if the Taliban doesn’t abide by the agreement.

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