Trump's Afghan envoy intensifies peace efforts with Taliban

Taliban political chief Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai first row second from left Abdul Salam Hanafi and other Taliban officials pray during the peace talks in Moscow Russia on Wednesday Feb 6 2019. ─ AP  File

Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan says there is no order to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the Afghan government should participate in peace talks with the Taliban, in remarks on a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Monday.

Ghani's government has been shut out of the evolving peace talks between Taliban negotiators and U.S. envoys, with the hardline Islamist movement branding his government a U.S. puppet.

The insurgent group claimed last week that the Trump administration had agreed to pull half of the USA forces in Afghanistan out of the country in just a couple months. He said IS still has a global presence. The unannounced visit is the first for the acting secretary of defense, Pat Shanahan.

"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 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.

The former US ambassador to Kabul also called for direct talks to begin as soon as possible between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which thus far has not been involved in Khalilzad's talks.

Shanahan took over from Jim Mattis, who quit in December over policy differences with US President Donald Trump.

"The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like", Shanahan told Military.com in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration's special envoy for Afghan peace talks, said Friday that although talks are in an early stage, he hopes a deal can be made by July.

He also said the United States has important security interests in the region.

Khalilzad recently returned from talks with the Taliban in the Gulf nation of Qatar. Shanahan had been Mattis' No 2. "It's not about the United States; it's about Afghanistan".

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

In addition to battling the Taliban, U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focused on an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan.

An Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters that even the suggestion of USA troops potentially leaving was risky.

Taliban officials in Moscow last week stressed the importance of a formal office among a string of demands that included the removal of Western sanctions and travel bans on Taliban members, prisoner releases and an end to "propaganda" against the group.

"I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defence and supports regional stability".

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

Trump has offered no specifics about when he would bring home US troops from Afghanistan but has said progress in negotiations with the Taliban would enable a troop reduction and a "focus on counter-terrorism".

The two-day talks were the Taliban's most significant engagement with Afghan leaders in years, and saw former president Hamid Karzai, among others, dining and praying with the insurgents - though without the involvement of the government it was unclear what impact they will have.

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