The Pentagon’s top official yesterday made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan to meet with US commanders and Afghan leaders amid a push for peace with the Taliban.
Pat Shanahan, the recently installed acting US secretary of defense, said he has no orders to reduce the US troop presence, although officials have said that is at the top of the Taliban’s list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations.
Shanahan said he is encouraged that US President Donald Trump’s administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war, the longest in US history.
However, he stressed that peace terms are for the Afghans to decide.
Thus far, the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the government of Afghan 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 US. It’s about Afghanistan,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s negotiator in the peace talks, on Friday said that although talks are in an early stage, he hopes a deal can be made by July, when Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election.
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who had never been in Afghanistan until yesterday, was scheduled to meet with Ghani and other top government officials.
Shanahan took over as acting secretary of defense on Jan. 1 after former US secretary of defense James Mattis submitted his resignation in December last year. 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, US Army General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying that the maneuvering between US and Taliban negotiators is “our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began.”
The Taliban are still capable of inflicting significant casualties on Afghan forces, Votel added.
Just last week the insurgents killed about two dozen Afghan troops in an attack on an army base in northern Kunduz Province.
In addition to battling the Taliban, US and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focused on an Islamic State (IS) affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan.
“Left unchecked,” Votel said in his report to the US 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 IS presence in Syria “has been decimated,” local Syrian security forces are needed to ensure stability.
IS still has a global presence, he said, adding: “If something hasn’t been completely eradicated, there is a risk of it returning.”
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