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Defense secretary arrives in Afghanistan ahead of US-Taliban deal

Defense secretary arrives in Afghanistan ahead of US-Taliban deal
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Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Democratic House chairman trusts Pentagon won't follow 'unlawful orders' on election involvement Top military officers cleared to return to Pentagon after quarantine MORE arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday to meet with officials ahead of the United States and the Taliban signing a deal to start withdrawing U.S. troops from the country.

A spokeswoman for Esper said that the Defense chief would meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Kabul.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE said in a statement on Friday that Esper would "issue a joint declaration with the government of Afghanistan" after the U.S. and Taliban sign the agreement.

The signing is expected to take place in Qatar, where Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Brazil's OECD candidacy is best chance for reform Watch live: Pompeo news conference MORE traveled on Saturday to witness the signing.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and representatives of the Taliban are reportedly expected to sign the accord itself.

The signing of the agreement comes after a seven-day “reduction in violence” period, which U.S. officials have deemed largely successful.

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“If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home,” Trump said Friday.

Experts told Reuters that Esper's trip Saturday was aimed at showing Ghani the United States' commitment to the Afghan government. 

“Washington is essentially trying to show that its full strength is behind this deal and it wants to also indicate to Kabul that it’s fully behind Afghanistan as the peace and reconciliation process moves toward a formal beginning,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director Asia Program at the Wilson Center, told the outlet.

The agreement with the Taliban would kick off a drawdown in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, from 12,000 currently in the country to 8,600. In return, the Taliban would provide assurances that it would not allow the country to be used as a launchpad for terror attacks.

Lawmakers have remained cautious about the accord, particularly its push to foster negotiations in Afghanistan between the country's government and the Taliban.

"These negotiations, if they take place, will be the first time that Afghans representing all sides of the conflict will sit down together and begin the hard work of reconciliation," Pompeo said earlier this week.

Trump in his statement Friday touted the deal, saying the administration was making "substantial progress" toward ending the nearly 19-year war in Afghanistan.

“When I ran for office, I promised the American people I would begin to bring our troops home, and seek to end this war,” Trump said. “We are making substantial progress on that promise.”

He urged the Afghans to “seize this opportunity for peace and a new future for their country."