Pentagon’s top official on Monday made his way to Afghanistan unannounced, to meet US Commanders and Afghan leaders for peace talks with the Taliban.
The acting Secretary of Defense, Pat Shanahan, said he doesn’t have any order to reduce the US troop’s presence. Although officials say that is at the top of the Taliban’s demand in peace negotiations.
Shanahan has said that he is encouraged that Donald Trump’s government is exploring all avenues to end the 17-year Afghan war, which is the longest in the history of the United States.
He stressed that peace terms are for left for the Afghans to decide. The Taliban has refused to have any negotiation in that regard with the government of Ashraf Ghani, referring to it as “illegitimate”. This is what the White House is trying to break.
Pat Shanahan told reporters traveling in his company that “the Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like. It’s not about the US, it’s about Afghanistan.”
Reports say “Shanahan flew to a military base ringed by snow-capped hills where he met Afghan army commandos, who are regarded as the most capable element of the Afghan military. He told reporters the US-trained commandos are increasingly on the offensive against the Taliban.”
The administration’s special envoy for Afghan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad said on Friday that he hopes a deal can be made by July even though talks are still in very early stage.
The Afghan presidential election is billed to hold around the same period. Pat Shanahan has never been to Afghanistan until on Monday when he was scheduled to have a formal meeting with Ghani and other top Afghan government officials.
Pat Shanahan, who was second to Jim Mattis, became the acting secretary of defense on January 1, after Mattis submitted his resignation in December.
It is not clear what Shanahan’s view on the Afghan war is. He said he would use this visit to inform his thoughts and to give a report back to President Trump.
The Commander of US Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, during his testimony before the Congress last week, offered a very optimistic view of Afghanistan, stating that the current talks between the US and Taliban negotiator is “our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began.”
“The Taliban are still capable of inflicting significant casualties on Afghan government forces,” Votel noted.
During his flight, Shanahan told reporters that although the Islamic State’s presence in Syria “has been decimated,” Syrian security forces are needed to ensure stability. According to him, Islamic State still has a global presence. “If something hasn’t been completely eradicated, there is a risk of it returning,” Pat Shanahan said.
President Trump has hinted that upon entering office in 2017, his instinct told him to withdraw the troops from Afghanistan. But instead of following his instinct, he added 3,500 troops in 2017-18 to bolster the US effort to train the Afghan forces.
Following Mattis’ resignation in December, the President had been unhappy with the way Mattis handled Afghanistan. The administration has since achieved a working “framework” for the pursuance of a peace negotiation with the Taliban.
Trump said in his State of the Union address to Congress last week, “We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement, but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace.”