US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has arrived in Afghanistan, where stalled peace talks with the Taliban and persistent violent attacks by the insurgent group and Islamic State militants have complicated the Trump administration's pledge to withdraw more than 5000 American troops.
Esper told reporters travelling with him that he believes the US can reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. But he said any withdrawal would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban.
The US has about 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan as part of the American-led coalition. US forces are training and advising Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations against extremists. President Donald Trump had ordered a troop withdrawal in conjunction with the peace talks that would have left about 8600 American forces in the country.
US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had a preliminary peace deal with the Taliban, but a surge in Taliban violence and the death of an American soldier last month prompted Trump to cancel a secret Camp David meeting where the peace deal would have been finalised. He declared the tentative agreement dead.
"The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that's the best way forward," said Esper, who was making his first trip to Afghanistan as defence secretary. He visited Afghanistan in his previous job as US Army secretary.
He would not say how long he believes it may be before a new peace accord could be achieved.
A month after the peace agreement collapsed, Zalmay met with Taliban in early October in Islamabad, Pakistan, but it was not clear what progress, if any, was being made.
Esper's arrival in Kabul came as Afghan government leaders delayed the planned announcement of preliminary results of last month's presidential election. Esper said he plans to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Both Ghani and his current partner in the unity government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have said they believe they had enough votes to win. The September 28 vote was marred by widespread misconduct and accusations of fraud.
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.
Esper planned to meet with his top commanders in Afghanistan as the US works to determine the way ahead in the 18-year war.