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Acting US secretary of defense pays unannounced visit to Afghanistan

13 February 2019

The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, and President Donald Trump has indicated he wants a substantial withdrawal this year, although no such orders have been given, according to U.S. military officials.

"What we see here today is how capability is being generated and the commitment of special forces to fighting the Taliban", Shanahan said.

But he stressed that peace terms are for the Afghans to decide.

The months-long push by the United States to engage the Taliban has ostensibly been aimed at convincing them to negotiate with Kabul, which the insurgents consider a USA puppet. Washington is trying to break that impasse.

It said the trip is intended "to facilitate a peace process that protects USA national security interests and brings all Afghan parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue through which they can determine a path for their country's future".

"Afghans must control their own future and be involved in ongoing peace discussions and there are no orders to reduce USA troop levels in Afghanistan", Shanahan said, according to Colonel Dave Butler, a spokesman for Resolute Support, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation training mission in Afghanistan.

However, the Taliban have threatened to derail the negotiations unless it secures a commitment from the USA about the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Nangarhar is a stronghold of the Taliban, the hardline Islamist movement that now controls or contests districts across almost half the country, more than 17 years since they were toppled from power. "It's not about the USA, it's about Afghanistan", he said.

The U.S. denies that any timeline for a withdrawal has been agreed yet with the Taliban, though CBS News senior national security correspondent David Martin reported just before Christmas that the Pentagon had been ordered to start planning the withdrawal of roughly 7,000 troops.

Of course, as a strategist with foresight, President Trump doesn't have to repeat the same past mistakes on Afghanistan.

Shanahan was "meeting with President Ashraf Ghani to discuss a broad range of defense issues", a Monday Pentagon statement reads. Shanahan had been Mattis' No. 2.

Shanahan met with a group of elite Afghan commandos later on Monday and backed using more resources for offensive operations by the special forces. Just last week the insurgents killed some two dozen Afghan troops in an attack on an army base in northern Kunduz province.

Afghanistan and neighbouring countries are also concerned about the effect of a sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces on the region.

"As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism", Trump said.

The SDF said at the end of last month that the presence of the fighters' wives and children meant the US -backed militia could not launch an all-out storm of the enclave and instead would have to use more measured and precise tactics, which has slowed the advance.

Mr. Trump has taken an ambivalent approach to Afghanistan, saying his instinct upon entering office in 2017 was to withdraw.

Shanahan replaced Jim Mattis as head of the Defense Department after Mattis resigned in protest to Trump's policies and left the job at the end of the year. Since then, the administration has said it achieved a tentative "framework" for fuller peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Despite such progress, challenges to a lasting peace in Afghanistan remain.

Acting US secretary of defense pays unannounced visit to Afghanistan