Published: Mon, February 11, 2019
Worldwide | By Myra Stephens

Acting Pentagon chief makes unannounced Afghanistan trip

Acting Pentagon chief makes unannounced Afghanistan trip

'The US has significant - significant - investment in ensuring security, but the Afghans decide their future'.

The acting Pentagon chief said Washington has important security interests in the region and wanted to hear from commanders on the ground. Pat Shanahan, the recently installed acting secretary of defense, said he has no orders to reduce the USA troop presence in the country, although officials say that's at the top of the Taliban's list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations. "It's not about the USA, it's about Afghanistan", Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.

The Taliban has refused to negotiate directly with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government, calling it a "puppet" of the West. ButGhani's allies in Washington insist Afghans should lead the peace process.

The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, and President Donald Trump has indicated he wants a substantial withdrawal this year, although no such orders have been given, according to U.S. military officials.

At an extraordinary moment in Pentagon history, a former business executive with little political stature and without military experience is making his global debut as the acting USA defense secretary.

It was not immediately clear if Shanahan and Khalilzad would be conducting joint discussions during their trips.

"We will bring a lasting and honourable peace to the country", he said. Those include the involvement of the Afghan government.

The next round of talks is due in Qatar on February 25.

Reuters meanwhile reported that Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Shanahan's main priority in Kabul should be to address Afghan government concerns. Yet he chose instead to add about 3,500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the US effort to train and advise Afghan forces.

"Of course it has given leverage to the Taliban, there is no question about that", the official told Reuters.

"The presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defense and supports regional stability and then any type of sizing is done in a coordinated and disciplined manner", he said.

The US envoy's most recent talks were in Doha late last month where the two sides met for six days.

The Taliban have put out contradictory information on what timeline the United States has agreed to in any potential withdrawal.

There are about 14,000 USA troops now deployed in Afghanistan, and the US administration reportedly plans to bring half of them home.

Khalizad, who was appointed to his current post in September, said although he and the Taliban have made progress on the issue of a US troop withdrawal, that is just one among many issues and none has been fully resolved.

Officials have expressed concern that Afghan security forces, already stretched thin, could crumble if USA troops leave.

Afghanistan's special forces units suffered increasingly heavy casualties past year as the Taliban mounted major assaults on provincial centers including Ghazni and Farah in the southwest.

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