A surprise announcement by President Donald Trump seemed to accelerate the expected timeframe for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, ahead of the all-Afghan peace summit planned for July 7 and 8 in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar – a gathering that will apparently be held on Taliban terms as there will be no official Afghan government representation.
On Monday, Trump told Fox News Channel's Tucker Carlson Tonight that nearly half of all American troops have already been pulled out.
That pullout was expected to be announced as part of a timeframe being negotiated by Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is in the middle of talks with the Taliban in Qatar.
"I've wanted to pull them out. And you know, I have pulled a lot out. We were at 16,000. We're down to about 9,000, which a lot of people don't know," Mr. Trump said according to the transcript of the Fox News Channel's Tucker Carlson Tonight interview shared with The Associated Press.
"So we've reduced the force very substantially in Afghanistan, which I don't talk about very much, and that's okay," Mr. Trump added.
The Taliban's spokesman in Doha, Qatar, Suhail Shaheen told The Associated Press earlier that talks with Mr. Khalilzad are focused on a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. In a tweet on Monday, Mr. Shaheen had said talks would come with an announcement of a timetable for withdrawal of the estimated 20,000 service personnel, nearly 14,000 of whom are Americans.
Mr. Trump's comments to Fox News Channel's Tucker Carlson Tonight seem to contradict a statement made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Kabul on June 25.
Then, Mr. Pompeo said Washington had made no decision on a timeframe for withdrawal.
"And while we've made clear to the Taliban that were prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear. We've not yet agreed on a timeline to do so," Mr. Pompeo said.
During the same Fox News Channel Tucker Carlson Tonight, Mr. Trump also said he wanted to leave a strong intelligence gathering force behind in Afghanistan.
"I'll tell you the problem is, look, I would like to just get out. The problem is, it [Afghanistan] just seems to be a lab for terrorists. It seems – I call it the Harvard of terrorists ... But I would leave very strong intelligence there," he said, according to the transcript.
Meanwhile, on the upcoming all-Afghan dialogue, Germany's special representative Ambassador Markus Potzel in his Tuesday's statement said those attending "will participate only in their personal capacity and on an equal footing."
The Taliban have flatly refused to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government – which they consider a U.S. puppet – while repeatedly offering talks with anyone who comes to the table as an ordinary Afghan. The Taliban have already twice met with prominent Afghans, including former President Hamid Karzai and even members of the government's peace council as well as opposition politicians. Those meetings have both been held in Moscow.
The announced talks come just a day after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a devastating attack in the Afghan capital of Kabul that killed at least six people and wounded more than 100 others, many of them children attending two schools in the area, according to the education ministry in Kabul.
Monday's attack occurred at the height of morning rush hour. It began with a powerful car bomb and lasted nearly 10 hours as five gunmen holed up in a high-rise building fired into a nearby defense ministry building, which the militants said was the target of the attack. Police eventually killed all five attackers.
Hafiz Khan, who operates a car battery workshop near the site of the downtown explosion, was waiting Tuesday along with dozens of other shopkeepers for police permission to enter the area, which was still cordoned off by Afghan security personnel.
"Immediately after the blast all I could see was dark black smoke everywhere, for minutes I wasn't sure where I was," said Mr. Khan, looking into Kabul's devastated market area. "It was the most dangerous moment of my life."
President Ghani condemned Monday's attack, saying the Taliban "wanted to continue this war."
However, he has not responded to the announcement of next week's talks. He has previously demanded the Taliban talk directly with his government, some of whom have complained about their continuing exclusion from meetings between the Taliban and the U.S. peace envoy, Mr. Khalilzad.
Mr. Khalilzad, who is holding a seventh round of direct talks with the Taliban in Doha, already held a battery of meetings with the Afghan president in Kabul last month. In an overnight tweet, he welcomed the announced all-Afghan talks. He tweeted that "this dialogue is an essential element of the four-part peace framework & and important step in advancing the #AfghanPeaceProcess."
Germany will co-sponsor the talks with Qatar, according to the statement issued by Mr. Potzel, who is the German special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
An earlier intra-Afghan dialogue in Qatar was scuttled when the two sides couldn't agree on participants. Mr. Potzel said the invitations this time have been jointly issued by Germany and Qatar.
"Afghanistan stands at a critical moment of opportunity for progress toward peace," said Mr. Potzel in his statement. "Only Afghans themselves can decide the future of their country."
He said both Qatar and Germany are hoping the talks will create trust between the warring sides.
But for ordinary Afghans battered by relentless violence there is mostly frustration.
"Peace will never come to Afghanistan," said an angry Sawab Gul, who was waiting in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Tuesday to open his partially destroyed bedding store. At 40 years old, Mr. Gul said he has never seen peace in his country and held out little hope for the current attempts at finding an end to Afghanistan's relentless wars.
"Every day people are dying. Afghanistan is like a hell for us Afghans," he said. "I don't think I will ever see peace."
This story was reported by The Associated Press.