Pentagon’s acting boss in Afghanistan

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan
Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit on Monday as the US leads a push for peace talks with the Taliban.

Shanahan will meet President Ashraf Ghani, who has warned against rushing into a deal after Washington held major talks with Taliban officials in Qatar in January that negotiators hope could herald a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict.

US President Donald Trump is pushing to end US involvement in Afghanistan, where 14,000 American troops are still deployed, raising Afghan fears that Washington could exit before securing a lasting peace between the Taliban and the Kabul government.

Shanahan said earlier that he had no instructions from Washington to begin a withdrawal, however.

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

“The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future,” Shanahan said.

"The US has significant – significant – investment in ensuring security, but the Afghans decide their future." Shanahan met General Scott Miller, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, before visiting Camp Morehead where Americans train Afghan special forces.

The US special envoy leading the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, has expressed hope at finding a deal before Afghan presidential elections scheduled for July, but has emphasised that any troop withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground.

The months-long push by the US to engage the Taliban has ostensibly been aimed at convincing them to negotiate with Kabul, which the insurgents consider a US puppet.

Ghani spoke last week with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also stressed the importance of the Afghan government being at the centre of the peace process.

But the insurgents, who ruled Afghanistan from 19962001, have steadfastly refused.

Instead, they met directly with US negotiators in Doha in January for peace talks which Trump called "constructive".

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.