Published: Mon, February 11, 2019

Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

The itinerary will take the USA delegation to Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the statement said, adding that Khalilzad would "consult with the Afghan government throughout the trip".

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

Although the progress in Qatar was hopeful, analysts believed that reaching a final agreement is far from guaranteed, saying the Taliban still refuses to negotiate a political settlement with the Afghan government. Kabul is also concerned that a sharp drawdown of USA forces could lead to chaos in the region.

"It's important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan", Shanahan told reporters on the flight.

"The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like. It's not about the USA, it is about Afghanistan".

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

Khalilzad said Friday that he hoped to see a peace deal in place before Afghanistan's July presidential elections. He said IS still has a global presence.

He also said his goal on the trip was to get an understanding of the situation on the ground from commanders and then brief Trump on his findings. US-Taliban peace talks have not included the Afghan government, which the Taliban considers US-backed puppets, and Khalilzad said recently that intra-Afghan negotiations were essential.

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

He called on Taliban to come to Kabul for peace talks and promised that the government would offer them office and ensure their security similar to the security measures which were taken during the ceasefire in Eid-ul-Fitr.

In addition to battling the Taliban, US and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focused on an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan. Shanahan had been Mattis' No. 2.

Afghanistan and neighboring countries are also concerned about the effect of a sudden withdrawal of USA forces on the region. Over the past few weeks, a U.S. delegation has been engaged in talks with the Afghan officials trying to prepare for a USA pullout. However, he told reporters, he has no particular instruction from the administration about any slashing of the American troop presence in Afghanistan from the current 14,000 soldiers. "I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defence and supports regional stability".

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

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

Besides talking with Afghan government officials, Shanahan is also expected to meet USA troops and commanders on the ground during his first overseas visit in an official capacity.

It was unclear whether the group had already left at the time of the statement.

Shanahan's views on the Afghan war are not widely known.

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

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