February 17, 2019

Top Pentagon official in Afghanistan amid push for peace

13 February 2019, 01:04 | Devin Moran

Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is leading a six nation tour to boost the peace process in Afghanistan the State Department says

"Mr. Patrick Shanahan reassured support for the Afghan National Army, and vowed the US would not leave the Afghan National Defense and Security forces alone in the fight against terrorism", the Defense Ministry noted in a statement after the visiting USA official met Assadullah Khalid, Afghan Defense Minister. Backed by 2,000 USA troops, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they are in a final showdown against ISIS after helping to drive the group from the towns and cities that once formed its self-proclaimed caliphate in eastern Syria.

According to multiple reports, Shanahan told reporters Monday that he did not have orders to start withdrawing troops, but a Taliban political official said in Moscow last week that the Taliban had already received word from the USA that Pentagon personnel in the country would be halved. He said the not seeking permanent military bases in Afghanistan and will leave if Kabul does not want USA troops there, provided that there is no threat to us national security from Afghanistan, particularly from terrorist groups.

Shanahan is expected to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

He also met his Afghan counterpart Asadullah Khalid in Kabul and reassured him that the United States military would not abandon Afghan soldiers in their battle against the militants. "It's not about the U.S., it is about Afghanistan", he said.

Some in Afghanistan have opposed any peace deal with the Taliban, while the Taliban has so far refused to negotiate with the government in Kabul, calling government officials puppets of the West. In recent weeks, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, announced that his team of negotiators had reached agreement in principle on core issues between the United States and the Taliban, a step diplomats hope will set the stage for broader peace discussions that include the Afghan government.

The latest round was held last month, and the next round is scheduled for February 25.

The discussions focused on two issues: The complete withdrawal of foreign troops and how to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists once again.

The Afghanistan trip is Shanahan's first overseas trip since December, when the former Boeing executive stepped into the role of acting defense secretary after the resignation of former Defense Secretary James Mattis.

It said the trip is intended "to facilitate a peace process that protects USA national security interests and brings all Afghan parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue through which they can determine a path for their country's future".

Afghanistan and neighboring countries are also concerned about the effect of a sudden withdrawal of USA forces on the region.

Shanahan said a withdrawal of about half the U.S. troops was not something that was being discussed. He says he is ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad said after six days of talks with the Taliban in Doha last month that the United States and the Taliban had sketched the outlines for an eventual peace accord.

He said it was crucial that Kabul, whose representatives were not at the talks in Qatar, was involved in discussions.

However, the Taliban have put out contradictory information on what timeline the United States had agreed to in any potential withdrawal.

Alokozay said it is not clear whether Afghan or USA forces conducted the strikes.

Shanahan met with a group of elite Afghan commandos later on Monday and backed using more resources for offensive operations by the special forces.

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

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