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Pentagon chief makes unannounced Afghanistan trip

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    Posted: 11-Feb-2019 at 1:03am

Patrick Shanahan to meet President Ashraf Ghani whose government was not part of talks between US and Taliban officials.

Acting Pentagon chief makes unannounced Afghanistan trip

Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of defence, has arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit amid a push by the United States to negotiate peace with the Taliban. 

Shanahan will meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose government was not part of major talks between the US and Taliban officials last month that officials hope could bring a breakthrough in the 17-year conflict.

"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 surprise trip on Monday.

The acting Pentagon chief said Washington has important security interests in the region and wanted to hear from the commanders on the ground.

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

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

Kabul is also concerned that a sharp withdrawal of the nearly 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan could lead to chaos in the region. 

The Taliban wants all American troops withdrawn, and officials say that is at the top of the armed group's list of demands in exploratory talks. 

Shanahan, who will also meet US commanders, told reporters he had so far not received any direction to reduce troops in Afghanistan. 

'Fact-finding mission'
Al Jazeera's Tony Birtley, reporting from Kabul, said Shanahan's trip was "a fact-finding mission". 

"His views on Afghanistan are not widely known, and he is expected to make them known after this visit," Birtley added. "His comments on Afghan government's involvement in peace talks is important for the government because they feel sidelined by the US-led talks."

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration's special envoy for Afghan peace talks, said on Friday that although peace talks with the Taliban are in an early stage, he hopes a deal can be made by July.

That is when Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election.

Since being appointed last September as the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Khalilzad has carried out a number of rounds of talks with the Taliban and other regional representatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, India, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. 

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

Washington wants assurances that Afghanistan will not harbour groups that would use the country as a base to launch attacks on the US. 

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

In December, there were numerous reports that Trump planned to halve the number of US forces in Afghanistan. In his State of the Union address last week, the US president said any troop pullout would be linked to progress in peace talks. 

General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, appearing before Congress last week, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying the current manoeuvring between the US and Taliban negotiators is "our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began".

Votel noted that the Taliban are still capable of inflicting significant casualties on Afghan government forces.

Just last week, Taliban fighters killed some two dozen Afghan troops in an attack on an army base in northern Kunduz province.

In addition to battling the Taliban, the US and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focussed on an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS), known as ISIS-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

Top Pentagon official in Afghanistan amid push for peace

The Pentagon's top official made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday to meet with U.S. commanders and Afghan leaders amid a push for peace with the Taliban.

Pat Shanahan, the recently installed acting secretary of defense, said he has no orders to reduce the U.S. troop presence, although officials say that is at the top of the Taliban's list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations.

Shanahan said he is encouraged that President Donald Trump's administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war, the longest in American history.

But he stressed that peace terms are for the Afghans to decide. Thus far the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, calling it illegitimate. Washington is trying to break that impasse.

"The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like. It's not about the U.S., it's about Afghanistan," Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration's special envoy for Afghan peace talks, said Friday that although talks are in an early stage, he hopes a deal can be made by July. That is when Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election.

Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who had never been in Afghanistan until Monday, was scheduled to meet with Ghani and other top government officials.

Shanahan took over as acting secretary of defense on Jan. 1 after Jim Mattis submitted his resignation in December. Shanahan had been Mattis' No. 2.

Shanahan's views on the Afghan war are not widely known. He said he would use this week's visit to inform his thinking and to report back to Trump.

In testimony before Congress last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying the current maneuvering between U.S. and Taliban negotiators is "our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began."

Votel noted that the Taliban are still capable of inflicting significant casualties on Afghan government forces. Just last week the insurgents killed some two dozen Afghan troops in an attack on an army base in northern Kunduz province.

In addition to battling the Taliban, U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focused on an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan. "Left unchecked," Votel said in his report to Congress, ISIS-Khorasan "will continue to grow as a threat to our homeland."

In his remarks to reporters during his flight to Kabul, Shanahan said that although the Islamic State presence in Syria "has been decimated," local Syrian security forces are needed to ensure stability. He said IS still has a global presence.

"If something hasn't been completely eradicated, there is a risk of it returning," he said.

Trump has taken an ambivalent approach to Afghanistan, saying his instinct upon entering office in 2017 was to withdraw. Yet he chose instead to add about 3,500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the U.S. effort to train and advise Afghan forces. After Mattis resigned in December, Trump insisted that he had been unhappy with how Mattis handled Afghanistan. Since then, the administration has said it achieved a tentative "framework" for fuller peace negotiations with the Taliban.

"We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement," Trump said in his State of the Union address to Congress last week, "but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace."

Source: The Washington Post
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