US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has arrived in Afghanistan where stalled peace talks with the Taliban and persistent attacks by armed groups have complicated the Trump administration's pledge to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops.
Esper said the USA could reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 without impacting counterterrorism operations, but any drawdown would be contingent on a peace deal.
Esper told reporters travelling with him that he believed the USA could reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS) group.
In terms of the USA goals for Afghanistan, Esper said the main objective is still for the Taliban and the Afghan government to broker a peace deal.
The US has about 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan as part of the US-led coalition.
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"The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that's the best way forward", said Esper.
At the last minute, Trump canceled a secret meeting between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban last month after the Taliban took responsibility for an attack in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a US soldier.
In the hours before Esper landed in Afghanistan, the European Union's special envoy to Kabul, Rolan Kobia, urged a fresh push toward a cease-fire that could help rekindle USA diplomatic efforts there.
He would not say how long he believes it may be before a new peace accord could be achieved.
A Taliban delegation met United States special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad for more than an hour in Pakistan this month, though officials said it did not represent a resumption of formal negotiations.
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Esper's arrival in Kabul came as Afghan government leaders delayed the announcement of the results of last month's presidential election.
Both Ghani and his current partner in the unity government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have said they believe they had enough votes to win.
Esper is scheduled to meet with Ghani and other senior government officials in his first trip to the country as defense secretary. The Sept. 28 vote was marred by widespread misconduct and accusations of fraud.
Esper planned to meet with his top commanders in Afghanistan as the US works to determine the way ahead in the 18-year war. He has complained that the USA has been serving as policemen in Afghanistan, and says that's not the American military's job.
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