Esper in Afghanistan as U.S. looks to kickstart Taliban talks

Pentagon chief Mark Esper arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday (October 20) aiming to get peace talks with the Taliban back on track.

The mission comes after President Donald Trump abruptly broke off negotiations last month.

On the flight to Afghanistan the Defense Secretary said the Pentagon was looking at how many troops it could withdraw while maintaining its counter-terrorism operations.


"Well I think the aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement. That's the best way forward. And I'll leave it to the State Department to comment on where things stand. And then with regard to a withdrawal of forces, as we've always said, that it'll be conditions based but we're confident that we can go down to 8600 without affecting our CT operations if you will."

But Esper's mission to help end America's longest war is overshadowed by Trump's sudden decision to pull U.S. troops from the battlefield in Syria, raising questions about Washington's commitment to its allies.

Esper told reporters that the nearly 1,000 American troops withdrawing from northern Syria are expected to move to western Iraq to continue the campaign against Islamic State militants.


"Certainly will be discussed at a military level is what does the next phase of the counter ISIS campaign look like. And and I know that's a top concern of mine. Second only to protection of our forces coming out of Syria."

That pullout stranded several thousand Syrian Kurdish fighters who had lead the ground campaign retaking territory from Islamic State in Syria.

Those Kurds were left to face a military onslaught from Turkey, which views to the Kurdish fighters as terrorists.

Last week Ankara agreed to a Washington-brokered five-day cease-fire to allow the Kurds to pull back from the Syrian border with Turkey.

Esper told reporters on Saturday quote: "I think overall the ceasefire generally seems to be holding, we see a stabilization of the lines, if you will, on the ground, and we do get reports of intermittent fires, this and that, that doesn't surprise me necessarily."

On Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted what appeared to be an embellished version of that quote, calling the defense chief "Mark Esperanto," and adding, "USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the oil. Bringing soldiers home!"

Reuters Pentagon correspondent Idrees Ali tweeted in response, "I'm not sure who Trump is referring to, but I'm traveling with Defense Secretary Esper and can't recall the quote Trump is using. While speaking with us en route to Afghanistan, Esper also made no mention of new areas being resettled with Kurds or oil."

In a subsequent tweet Trump corrected the spelling of the defense secretary's name, and took out the part about the soldiers coming home.