Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

"It's not about the USA, it's about Afghanistan", Shanahan told reporters travelling with him from Washington.

Shanahan, making his first trip to Afghanistan in his new role, met USA troops and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. "It's not about the U.S., it is about Afghanistan", he said. Some U.S. forces also carry out counter-terrorism operations.

"He will meet with our allies and partners to discuss mutual efforts to advance that goal and will consult with the Afghan government throughout the trip", the statement read.

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

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

"The U.S. military has strong security interests in the region". He said IS still has a global presence.

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

Shanahan is under consideration to be nominated as Trump's second defense secretary at a moment when the president is taking steps to end the counterterrorism wars that have dominated Pentagon activities since the 9/11 attacks.

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

USA officials have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar since previous 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.

Ghani's government has not been included in the talks.

The US is expected to commence a second round of talks with Taliban officials on February 25 in Qatar, where they have their political office.

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 death toll of US service members in Afghanistan has surpassed 2,400 since the United States invaded the country in 2001. Over the past few weeks, a United States delegation has been engaged in talks with the Afghan officials trying to prepare for a U.S. pullout. Military officials have taken part in some of the meetings with the Taliban.

The pace of any US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a major point of discussion - and concern - given the strength the Taliban still wields and the group's well-established history of hosting terror groups. The US is increasingly confident it will soon be able to withdraw its troops from Syria.

"I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defence and supports regional stability".

Khalilzad, who held talks with Taliban representatives four times in the last four months, has expressed cautious optimism about the prospect of a deal, and even announced a draft framework, but stressed nothing had been finalized. Earlier in the day, he visited an Afghan commando training site and received an update on the war from Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, the commander of USA and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces in Afghanistan.

Most recently, a Taliban official said no timetable had been agreed with the United States government for the partial withdrawal of USA forces.

The insurgent group claimed last week that the Trump administration had agreed to pull half of the US forces in Afghanistan out of the country in just a couple months. Pat Shanahan, the recently installed acting secretary of defense, said he has no orders to reduce the US troop presence in the country, although officials say that's at the top of the Taliban's list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations. Yet he chose instead to add about 3500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the U.S. effort to train and advise Afghan forces.

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