KABUL – Acting U.S. defence secretary Patrick Shanahan reached Afghanistan today and said it was necessary that the Afghan government is also engaged in talks to end the 17-year-old war. It has so far not been included.
Shanahan will meet U.S. troops and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on his first trip in his new role. He said he had so far not received any direction to reduce the nearly 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The United States has strategic security interests in the region.
Ghani’s government has been kept out of the loop in negotiating peace between Taliban negotiators and U.S. envoys. The hardline Islamist movement regards the government a U.S. puppet. Kabul is also worried that withdrawal of U.S. forces could result in instability in the region.
“The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It’s not about the U.S., it is about Afghanistan,” Shanahan said.
He said he could not make any assurances since U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was leading the talks.
“The U.S. military has strong security interests in the region. (The) presence will evolve out of those discussions,” Shanahan said.
He also said the purpose of his trip was to get an understanding of the ground situation from commanders and then to brief President Trump on his observations.
U.S. officials have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar since last year in what is widely regarded as the most serious attempt yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by U.S. backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Both sides were happy with the progress after the latest round last month, although a few hindrances remain. Those include the participation of the Afghan government, which the Taliban refuse to recognize.
The next round of talks is due in Qatar on Feb. 25.
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 top priority of Shanahan has to be to impress upon the government that we’re going to do everything we can to get you into this conversation,” Kugelman said.
Shanahan will also have to deal with how much allies will trust him.
Shanahan replaced Jim Mattis, who quit in December over policy differences with U.S. President Donald Trump. Mattis, a former four-star general once in charge of U.S. Central Command, was respected for his deep knowledge of military and global affairs. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive and Mattis’s deputy, is seen as a relative outsider in foreign policy circles.
Afghanistan and neighboring countries are also worried about the effect a withdrawal of U.S. forces could have on the region. Even the suggestion of U.S. troops potentially leaving stirs fear among the people.
Trump has not offered any time line for withdrawal of 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He has said progress in negotiations with the Taliban would surely enable a troop reduction and a “focus on counter-terrorism”.