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Pentagon chief arrives for surprise Afghanistan visit

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds a media briefing at the Pentagon on August 28, 2019, in Arlington, Va. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has arrived in the Afghan capital on his first trip to that country since taking over as Pentagon chief in July, possibly signaling fresh U.S. efforts to end the longest war in U.S. history.

He will reportedly meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and visit some of the 14,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan, where the United States has spent 18 years since leading an international coalition to punish Al-Qaeda and oust the fundamentalist Taliban.

The visit comes with peace talks seemingly at a standstill since U.S. President Donald Trump last month suspended negotiations with the Taliban amid reports that a preliminary peace deal might be at hand to help bring more than 5,000 U.S. troops home from that conflict.

AP reported that Esper told reporters traveling with him on October 20 that he thought Washington could reduce troop numbers to around 8,600 without hindering counterterrorism efforts targeting militants of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).

“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that’s the best way forward,” Esper said, according to AP.

On October 19, Afghans held funerals in eastern Afghanistan for victims of a mosque bombing a day earlier that killed at least 69 people during Friday Prayers, highlighting the uptick in attacks in recent months that Trump blamed for derailing the U.S.-Taliban talks.

Esper was expected to meet with Ghani, who is thought to be in a two-man race with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah as the vote count continues following Afghanistan’s September 28 presidential election.

Afghan election officials on October 19 postponed the scheduled announcement of preliminary results from that voting, with talk that nearly one-quarter of the votes might be tossed out over failures in identification procedures.

The Taliban refuses to talk directly with the Afghan government, calling it a “puppet” of foreign powers.

Taliban negotiators said in early October that they had met in Pakistan with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, for the first time since Trump called the peace process “dead.” U.S. officials did not confirm the meeting.

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 U.S. diplomatic efforts there.

“It’s the right moment and the right opportunity to maybe go one step beyond a simple reduction in violence and explore ways in which a cease-fire…will take place,” Kobia told reporters in Kabul on October 20, according to AFP. “The idea is really to see how we can move the cease-fire idea forward instead of leaving it for later.”

He added, “There is an opportunity here today.”

Over several days last week, Kobia met with Ghani, Abdullah, and other Afghan officials.

In tweets commenting on his meeting with Ghani, Kobia said he had “discussed post-elections context, peace talks resumption and ceasefire + next steps combining both” with the 70-year-old Afghan president.

Asked by reporters about EU leverage toward a cease-fire, AFP quoted Kobia as saying the Taliban could return to power in “one form or another,” so could be interested in more normalized relations with Europe. “A cease-fire would be a token, a guarantee of goodwill and good preparation for the normalization of these relationships,” he said.

In 2014, Ghani and Abdullah eventually consented to a U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal following a disputed presidential election that threatened to escalate into more bloodshed.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters