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Acting Pentagon chief: no orders to withdraw from Afghanistan

12 February 2019
Acting Pentagon chief: no orders to withdraw from Afghanistan

The Pentagon's top official made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday to meet US commanders and Afghan leaders amid a push for peace with the Taliban.

Ghani's government has been shut out of the peace talks between Taliban negotiators and USA envoys, with the hardline Islamist movement branding it a US puppet.

The talks come as US President Donald Trump pushes to end the Afghan conflict, where about 14,000 US troops are still deployed, and which has seen countless civilian and military deaths, as well as an infusion of more than $1 trillion in US cash into the country.

Acting U.S. defense secretary Patrick Shanahan meets with Afghan commandos at Camp Morehead in Kabul, Afghanistan February 11, 2019.

"But we need to give them time and space", he said.

Shanahan said from his plane that he had no orders to "step down our forces in Afghanistan", but was tasked with supporting ongoing peace talks between Washington and the Taliban.

Some senior Afghan officials are anxious about possible USA concessions to the Taliban and the Kabul government's exclusion from the recent discussions, which have taken place in the gulf state of Qatar. He said the U.S.is not seeking permanent military bases in Afghanistan and will leave if Kabul does not want US troops there, provided that there is no threat to USA national security from Afghanistan, particularly from terrorist groups. Sean Robertson, a military spokesman, the talks highlighted the need for a political settlement "that ensures Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven from which terrorists can plan and launch terrorist attacks against the United States, our interests, and our allies".

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.

Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington on Friday, Khalilzad said Trump had been clear about his desire to end what he characterized as "endless wars". Shanahan had been Mattis' No. 2.

"I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defense and supports regional stability, and that any type of sizing is done in a coordinated and disciplined manner", he said. "It's not about the US, it is about Afghanistan".

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.

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

An Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters that even the suggestion of U.S. troops potentially leaving was unsafe. Military officials have taken part in some of the meetings with the Taliban.

In testimony before Congress last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying the current maneuvering between U.S. and Taliban negotiators is "our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began".

Khalizad, who was appointed to his current post in September, said although he and the Taliban have made progress on the issue of a USA troop withdrawal, that is just one among many issues and none has been fully resolved.

He said it was crucial Kabul, whose representatives were not at the talks in Qatar, was involved in discussions over the future of Afghanistan.

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