By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday said he would be personally meeting leaders of the Taliban in the near future and rejected criticism of a deal that the United States signed with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
He spoke hours after U.S. and Taliban representatives signed a deal that could pave the way toward a full withdrawal of foreign soldiers and move closer to ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan.
Trump said the agreement should allow the United States to draw down troops from 13,000 to 8,600. He held out the possibility of withdrawals beyond that number, but said the United States could quickly move forces back into the country if needed.
Trump has frequently expressed a desire to put a halt to “endless wars” and has said he has been personally struck by meeting wounded soldiers who are missing limbs on his visits to Walter Reed Medical Center.
The president came under sharp criticism for the deal from his former national security adviser, John Bolton, who said in a tweet that “signing this agreement with Taliban is an unacceptable risk to America’s civilian population.”
“This is an Obama-style deal. Legitimizing Taliban sends the wrong signal to ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists, and to America’s enemies generally,” he said, referring to former President Barack Obama, Trump’s Democratic predecessor.
Trump’s willingness to meet Taliban leaders at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, last year was a factor in Bolton’s exit from the White House. Taliban violence in Afghanistan prompted Trump to cancel that meeting.
Trump rejected the criticism from his former aide.
“Nobody should be criticizing this deal after 19 years. He had his chance, he didn’t do it,” Trump said of Bolton.
Trump did not say where he would be meeting leaders of the group that has fought the American presence in Afghanistan since war broke out following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
At a White House news conference, Trump said Afghanistan’s neighbors should help maintain stability following the agreement.
Many expect the forthcoming talks between the Afghan sides to be more complicated than the initial deal. But Trump said he thought the negotiations would be successful because “everyone is tired of war.”
Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Nick Zieminski