WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that Washington remains committed to peace and stability in Afghanistan as America’s defence chief arrives in Kabul on Sunday in a bid to revive the stalled talks with the Taliban.

“The United States remains committed to peace and stability in Afghanistan and will continue to fight against terrorism,” said Secretary Pompeo in a statement issued by his office. “We stand by the people of Afghanistan who only want peace and a future free from these abhorrent acts of violence.”

This reiteration of the US desire to peacefully end the 18-year old Afghan war is particularly significant because it’s included in a statement condemning Friday’s mosque attack that killed at least 69 people in Nangarhar.

Earlier on Sunday, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Afghanistan for talks that also include reviewing options for restarting the Afghan peace process. The process stopped after President Donald Trump abruptly broke off negotiations with the Taliban last month.

Esper says Washington is committed to supporting a free and democratic Afghanistan

After a meeting with Gen Scott Miller, commander of the US-led Operation Resolute Support, Secretary Esper said the United States still wants to “ensure that Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for terrorism”. In a tweet released after the meeting, he said: “We are committed to supporting a free & democratic Afghanistan.”

Secretary Esper is due to meet President Ashraf Ghani and US troops while in Afghanistan.

In Washington, the Trump administration’s chief negotiator for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark A. Milley on Friday to discuss his plans with America’s highest-ranking military officer.

“We agreed that a political settlement that safeguards the homeland from terrorist threats, allows us to reduce the burden of war and protects two decades of progress in Afghanistan is in our national interest,” Ambassador Khalilzad wrote in a tweet after the meeting.

CNN reported that Mr Esper’s unannounced visit to Afghanistan was also his first to the war-ravaged country as the US defence chief. He is on a weeklong trip to the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

Secretary Esper told reporters travelling with him that he believed the US could reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting its mission to force Al Qaeda and militant Islamic State group out of that country. The United States still has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan.

However, “any withdrawal would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban”, he added.

Re-emphasising the US commitment to a political agreement, he said: “The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement. That is the best way forward.”

The United States, he said, was seeking a settlement that uprooted all terrorist groups from Afghanistan and also brought peace and prosperity to its people. “I hope we can move forward and come up with a political agreement that meets our ends and meets the goals we want to achieve,” he said.

As Mr Esper pointed out, the US State Department is leading the peace process, which includes direct talks between US and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. The talks started early last year and have continued with brief intervals, allowing both sides to consult their leaderships.

Last month, however, President Trump surprised Americans by announcing that he had invited senior Taliban leaders to the Camp David presidential resort during the 9/11 weekend to sign a peace agreement with them.

But he called off the visit because the Taliban had continued to carry out terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and said that he would not resume the peace talks as long as the attacks continued.

But the Voice of America broadcasting service reported on Saturday that Ambassador Khalilzad did meet a Taliban delegation earlier this month in Islamabad when both sides were there to meet Pakistani officials.

“It’s the first known contact between the US and Taliban since President Trump canceled peace talks with the insurgents in September,” the report added. It noted that the “meeting was a confidence-building measure between the two sides and did not include formal negotiations”.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2019