U.S. defence chief in Afghanistan to assess the way ahead

Elias Hubbard
October 20, 2019

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.

Trump halted talks with the Taliban, aimed at striking a deal for United States and other foreign troops to withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, after it carried out a bomb attack in Kabul last month that killed 12 people, including a USA soldier.

His visit to Kabul comes amid questions about the role of US troops in the region after Trump quickly began withdrawing forces from northeastern Syria earlier this month. "That is the best way forward", Esper told reporters travelling with him to Afghanistan.

In terms of the US goals for Afghanistan, Esper said the main objective is still for the Taliban and the Afghan government to broker a peace deal.

The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. -led coalition training and advising the Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations against insurgents.

Taliban negotiators said in early October that they had met in Pakistan with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy for Afghanistan, for the first time since Trump called the peace process "dead". He declared the tentative agreement dead.

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.

"The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement".

A Taliban delegation met USA 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.

Afghan election officials on October 19 postponed the scheduled announcement of preliminary results from that voting, with talk that almost one-quarter of the votes might be tossed out over failures in identification procedures. Esper met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other government officials.

Both Ghani and his current partner in the unity government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have said they believe they had enough votes to win.

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. He is also set to meet with USA military officials who are leading operations on the ground to discuss the way forward in the 18-year war.

Trump, since his 2016 presidential campaign, has spoken of a need to withdraw USA troops from the "endless war" in Afghanistan. He has complained that the USA has been serving as policemen in Afghanistan, and says that's not the American military's job.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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