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U.S. Defense Chief Looks To Reassure Afghans That Syria Pullout Is One-Off Move

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (right) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Kabul on October 20.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (right) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Kabul on October 20.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has told Afghan officials that the United States' "long-standing commitment" to the country remains, in an attempt to calm fears Washington will pull its troops following a similar move in Syria.

Esper said on October 21 during a visit to NATO's Resolute Support mission headquarters in Kabul that the United States still faced a "virulent terrorist threat" that started in Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda and continues with the Taliban, Islamic State (IS), and other groups.

"All these things should reassure our Afghan allies and others that they should not misinterpret our actions in the recent week or so with regard to Syria and contrast that with Afghanistan," he said.

Esper's visit to Kabul coincided on October 20 with the surprise arrival of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Congressional members.

Both met with President Ashraf Ghani as well as other high-level U.S. military commanders and some of their soldiers.

It was Esper’s first trip to Afghanistan since taking over as Pentagon chief in July, possibly signaling fresh efforts to end the longest war in U.S. history.

The visit comes against the backdrop of the announcement of a pullout of U.S. troops from northeast Syria. Since then, Turkey has launched an offensive against the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which were previously backed by Washington.

The move, which has surprised and angered many U.S. politicians, has raised concerns in Kabul that the White House may do something similar in Afghanistan.

Esper also took part in a meeting with Ghani and visited 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 extremist 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 Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) militants.

"The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that's the best way forward," Esper said, according to AP.

Pelosi’s visit came amid sour relations with Trump as she leads an impeachment probe against him.

The visits came a day after Afghans held funerals in eastern Afghanistan for victims of a mosque bombing the day before that killed at least 69 people during Friday Prayers, highlighting the uptick in attacks in recent months that Trump blamed for derailing the U.S.-Taliban talks.

Ghani is thought to be in a two-man race with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah as the vote count continues following a September 28 presidential election, the latest in the South Asian country of around 35 million to be held under threat of violence by the Taliban and its allies.

Afghan election officials on October 19 postponed the scheduled announcement of preliminary results of that election amid speculation that nearly one-quarter of the votes might be tossed out over failures in identification procedures.

The Taliban refuses to talk directly with the Afghan government, calling it a "puppet" of foreign powers.

Taliban negotiators said in early October that they had met in Pakistan with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, for the first time since Trump called the peace process "dead." U.S. officials did not confirm the meeting.

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 U.S. diplomatic efforts there.

"It's the right moment and the right opportunity to maybe go one step beyond a simple reduction in violence and explore ways in which a cease-fire...will take place," Kobia told reporters in Kabul on October 20, according to the French AFP news agency. "The idea is really to see how we can move the cease-fire idea forward instead of leaving it for later."

He added, "There is an opportunity here today."

Over several days last week, Kobia met with Ghani, Abdullah, and other Afghan officials.

In tweets commenting on his meeting with Ghani, Kobia said he had "discussed post-elections context, peace talks resumption and ceasefire + next steps combining both" with the 70-year-old Afghan president.

Asked by reporters about EU leverage toward a cease-fire, AFP quoted Kobia as saying the Taliban could return to power in "one form or another" so could be interested in more normalized relations with Europe. "A cease-fire would be a token, a guarantee of goodwill and good preparation for the normalization of these relationships," he said.

In 2014, Ghani and Abdullah eventually consented to a U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal following a disputed presidential election that threatened to escalate into more bloodshed.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

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