ANKARA, Turkey -- 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.
Also Saturday, mortar shells slammed into a residential area of the Afghan capital, killing eight people, hours before outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held what are likely his last meetings with the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators trying to hammer out a peace deal in Qatar. The attack in Kabul, which was blamed on Islamic State militants, also injured 31 people.
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 the negotiations 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 decision 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 last week 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 that he welcomed the fact that 2,500 troops will remain and that NATO will also retain its presence.
He said he was confident that the United States will continue to support peace talks 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.
Biden has previously advocated a small, intelligence-based force in Afghanistan to focus on counterterrorism.
Abdullah cautioned that "a comprehensive settlement will come as a result of the negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban," regardless of any possible input by the new U.S. administration.
POMPEO OFFERS HELP
In Doha, Qatar, Pompeo told Afghan government negotiators that the U.S. will "sit on the side and help where we can" in the negotiations with Taliban militants.
Two Taliban officials said the warring sides have found common ground on which to move the stalled talks forward. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, did not elaborate.
In Kabul, at least one of the 23 mortar shells fired from two cars hit inside the Iranian Embassy compound. No one was injured, but it damaged the main building, the Iranian Embassy said in a tweet. At least 31 people were hurt elsewhere in the city, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry.
The local Islamic State affiliate issued a statement claiming the attack that targeted the Green Zone in Kabul, which houses foreign embassies, the presidential palace and Afghan military compounds, according to SITE Intelligence Group.
Pompeo also met with the co-founder of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the peace agreement with Washington in February ahead of the intra-Afghan talks. The insurgent group's spokesman, Mohammad Naeem, tweeted that further prisoner releases were discussed.
Naeem said the Taliban also repeated their demand that Taliban leaders be removed from the United Nations sanctions list. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed earlier Saturday issued a statement assailing the Afghan government for requesting the U.N. maintain sanctions on Taliban leaders.
For most Afghans, the overriding concern has been a sharp rise in violence this year and a surge of attacks by the Taliban against Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces since the start of peace talks in September.
The announcement that the United States will accelerate its troop withdrawal has lent greater urgency to the peace negotiations and to the calls for a reduction in violence.
The United States has been pressing in recent weeks for a reduction in violence, while the Afghan government has been demanding a cease-fire. The Taliban have refused, saying a cease-fire will be part of the negotiations.
The Taliban have, however, held to their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops.
There are many within the Afghan government who want February's peace deal scrapped.
Information for this article was contributed by Suzan Fraser, Kathy Gannon and Tameem Akhgar of The Associated Press.