KABUL: Mark Esper sought a firsthand assessment on Sunday of the US military’s future role in America’s longest war as he made his initial visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief. Stalled peace talks with the Taliban and unrelenting attacks by the insurgent group and IS militants have complicated the Trump administration’s pledge to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops.

Esper told reporters travelling with him that he believes the US can reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. But he said any withdrawal would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban.

“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that’s the best way forward,” said Esper. He visited Afghanistan in his previous job as US Army secretary.

He would not say how long he believes it may be before a new peace accord could be achieved.

A month after the peace agreement collapsed, Khalilzad met with Taliban in early October in Islamabad, Pakistan, but it was not clear what progress, if any, was being made.

Esper’s arrival in Kabul came as Afghan government leaders delayed the planned announcement of preliminary results of last month’s presidential election. Esper met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other government officials.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was visiting Afghanistan with a congressional delegation at the same time.

Her office said in a statement on Sunday night the bipartisan delegation met with top Afghan leaders, civil society representatives and US military chiefs and troops serving there. Pelosi says the delegation emphasised the importance of combating corruption and ensuring women are at the table in reconciliation talks.

Both Ghani and his current partner in the unity government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have said they believe they had enough votes to win. The Sept 28 vote was marred by widespread misconduct and accusations of fraud.

Officials said the announcement of preliminary results has been delayed due to problems with the transparency of the process, delays in transferring ballot papers and delays in transferring data from a biometric system into the main server.

Esper planned to meet with his top commanders in Afghanistan as the US works to determine the way ahead in the 18-year war.

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2019

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