Defense Secretary Mark Esper traveled to Afghanistan on Saturday in an effort to restart peace talks with the Taliban after President Trump scrapped plans for negotiations at Camp David last month.
His visit to Kabul comes amid questions about the role of U.S. troops in the region after Trump quickly began withdrawing forces from northeastern Syria earlier this month. Esper told reporters traveling with him that those U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq to help in the fight against the Islamic State.
In terms of the U.S. goals for Afghanistan, Esper said the main objective is still for the Taliban and the Afghan government to broker a peace deal. The stalled talks have been a wrench in the Trump administration’s vow to remove some of the 14,000 troops based in Afghanistan. The White House has said that the U.S. will only withdraw forces if both sides agree not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe harbor for terrorists.
“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement. That’s the best way forward,” Esper told reporters, deferring to the State Department on questions about the status of those talks.
Esper said the U.S. 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.
“I know what we can go down to and feel confident based on reports I’ve gotten from the commander on the ground,” he said.
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 U.S. soldier.
Civilian deaths in Afghanistan reached a record high recently, increasing by 42% compared to the same period last year, according to the United Nations. The latest was a deadly suicide bombing at a mosque in a small village in eastern Afghanistan that killed at least 66 people last week, according to the AP.
Esper’s trip also comes in the middle of an uncertain period for the Afghan government. Preliminary results in last month’s presidential election have been withheld after the vote was tainted by widespread corruption. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said they believe they won enough votes to maintain power.
Esper is scheduled to meet with Ghani and other senior government officials in his first trip to the country as defense secretary. He is also set to meet with U.S. military officials who are leading operations on the ground to discuss the way forward in the 18-year war.