Defense Secretary Mark Esper made his first trip to Afghanistan on Sunday and announced that he believes the U.S. can cut troops stationed there down to 8,600, from 14,000—pending a peace agreement with the Taliban—without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS. “The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that’s the best way forward,” Esper said.
While in Afghanistan, Esper is meeting with top commanders to receive a firsthand assessment of the military’s ongoing role in America’s longest war. President Trump has said he wants to withdraw the U.S. from the 18-year war, but peace talks with the Taliban have stalled. U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalizad arranged a preliminary peace deal with the Taliban, but that deal fell through in September after Trump abruptly cancelled a secret Camp David meeting with Taliban leaders after a U.S. soldier was killed in a Kabul bombing. Trump later declared the Khalizad agreement dead.