The Pentagon’s top official has 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 defence, said he has no orders to reduce the US troop presence, although officials say that is at the top of the Taliban’s list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations.
Shanahan said he is encouraged that President Donald Trump’s administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war, the longest in American history.
But he stressed that peace terms are for the Afghans to decide. Thus far the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the government of 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 travelling with him from Washington.
Later, 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.
Shanahan took over as acting secretary of defence on January 1 after Jim Mattis submitted his resignation in December. 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 his remarks to reporters during his flight to Kabul, Shanahan said that although the Islamic State presence in Syria “has been decimated,” local Syrian security forces are needed to ensure stability. He said IS still has a global presence.
“If something hasn’t been completely eradicated, there is a risk of it returning,” he said.
Trump has taken an ambivalent approach to Afghanistan, saying his instinct upon entering office in 2017 was to withdraw.
Yet he chose instead to add about 3,500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the US effort to train and advise Afghan forces.