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US begins Afghanistan troop withdrawal as ISIS claims rocket attack during presidential inauguration

The U.S. military has begun withdrawing a limited number of troops from Afghanistan in accordance with a deal with the Taliban, the Defense Department said on Monday, after Islamic State claimed its fighters carried out an artillery attack during the inauguration of President Ashraf Ghani.

The U.S. and the Taliban reached the agreement earlier this month, laying groundwork for American forces to withdraw from the country, where they have propped up the government against the insurgent group for more than 18 years.

“U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days,” USFOR-A spokesperson Colonel Sonny Leggett said in a Monday, March 9 statement.

There are currently approximately 12,000 U.S. troops in the country.

According to the agreement signed in Qatar, all foreign troops will withdraw from Afghanistan in 14 months, in return for various security commitments from the Taliban. Afghanistan’s government was not party to the talks, but intra-Afghan negotiations are due to begin on March 10.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has emphasized that the drawdown is “conditions-based,” but has not said definitively whether the Taliban has agreed not to attack Afghan government forces. In December, Esper said he wanted to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan “with or without” a peace agreement in order to give higher priority to strategic competition with China.

Even with the drawdown, U.S. forces retain “all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives – including conducting counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and ISIS-K and providing support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” Leggett said in the statement. “USFOR-A is on track to meet directed force levels while retaining the necessary capabilities.”

The U.S. military uses ISIS-K to refer to Islamic State’s Afghanistan-based Khorasan Province affiliate.

Earlier on Monday, ISIS claimed ISKP fighters had launched 10 rockets during President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration ceremony , and later posted an image it said showed the munitions fired.

Ghani, dressed in traditional Afghan clothing and white turban, arrived at the presidential palace surrounded by supporters, senior political figures and foreign dignitaries including U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and General Scott Miller, who heads USFOR-A.

As hundreds of people watched Ghani’s ceremony, at least two loud explosions were heard, prompting some to flee.

The interior ministry later said four rockets had struck downtown Kabul, including the wall of the luxury Serena hotel near the palace. A police officer was slightly wounded.

Minutes later, in another corner of the sprawling palace compound, Ghani’s former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah inaugurated himself as president, vowing to “safeguard the independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity” of Afghanistan.

A bitter feud between Ghani and Abdullah has raised fresh fears for Afghanistan’s fragile democracy amid the U.S. troops withdrawal.

Polls were held in September, but repeated delays and accusations of widespread voter fraud meant that Ghani, the incumbent, was only narrowly declared the winner in February – sparking a furious response from Abdullah, who vowed to form his own parallel government.

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With reporting from AFP.

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