Acting Pentagon chief makes first Afghanistan trip before next round of peace talks

Acting Pentagon chief makes first Afghanistan trip before next round of peace talks

FILE PHOTO: Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks at Missile Defense Review anno
FILE PHOTO: Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks during the Missile Defense Review announcement at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia on Jan 17, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

KABUL: Acting US defence secretary Patrick Shanahan arrived in Afghanistan on Monday (Feb 11) on his first trip in the role and said it was important the Afghan government is involved in talks, from which it has so far been excluded, to end the 17-year-old war.

Shanahan, who will meet US troops and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said he had so far not received any direction to reduce the nearly 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan.

He also said the United States has important security interests in the region.

Ghani's government has been shut out of the evolving peace talks between Taliban negotiators and US envoys, with the hardline militant movement branding his government a US puppet. Kabul is also concerned that a sharp drawdown of US forces could lead to chaos in the region.

"It is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan," Shanahan told a small group of reporters travelling with him on the unannounced trip.

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"The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It's not about the US, it is about Afghanistan," he said.

Shanahan took over from Jim Mattis, who quit in December over policy differences with US President Donald Trump.

He said he could not make any guarantees because US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was leading the talks.

"The US military has strong security interests in the region. (The) presence will evolve out of those discussions," Shanahan said.

He also said his goal on the trip was to get an understanding of the situation on the ground from commanders and then to brief Trump on his findings.

US officials have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar since last year in what is widely seen as the most serious bid yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

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Both sides hailed progress after the latest round last month, although significant obstacles remain. Those include the involvement of the Afghan government, which the Taliban refuse to acknowledge.

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

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.

"The top priority of Shanahan has to be to impress upon the government that we're going to do everything we can to get you into this conversation," Kugelman said.

Source: Reuters/ga

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