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Pentagon Chief Arrives For Surprise Afghanistan Visit

FILE: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper
FILE: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper

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.

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 European Union's special envoy to Kabul, Rolan Kobia, on October 20 urged a fresh push toward a cease-fire that could help rekindle U.S. diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters