Top Pentagon Official in Afghanistan amid Push for Peace

Top Pentagon Official in Afghanistan amid Push for Peace

Shanahan was "meeting with President Ashraf Ghani to discuss a broad range of defense issues", a Monday Pentagon statement reads.

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.

Shanahan, who is also due to meet General Scott Miller, the top United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation commander in Afghanistan, told reporters aboard his flight to Kabul that he had no instructions from Washington to begin a withdrawal. He said IS still has a global presence. "It's not about the U.S. It is about Afghanistan", he added.

Shanahan took over as acting secretary of defense on January 1 after Jim Mattis submitted his resignation in December.

Talk of any substantial troop reduction appears to be on hold for now as the White House tries to give diplomats a chance to foster peace talks. He said the U.S.is not seeking permanent military bases in Afghanistan and will leave if Kabul does not want US troops there, provided that there is no threat to USA national security from Afghanistan, particularly from terrorist groups. Earlier in the day, he visited an Afghan commando training site and received an update on the war from Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, the commander of USA and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces in Afghanistan.

Negotiators hope the talks with Taliban officials could herald a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict.

Afghanistan and neighboring countries are concerned about the effect of a sudden withdrawal of USA forces on the region.

A December Pentagon assessment described the battlefield situation as a continued impasse but said "the combination of military escalation and diplomatic initiative have made a favorable political settlement more likely than at any time in recent memory".

The US has also been calling for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government - especially after Moscow hosted a conference of high-profile Afghan delegates, which featured Taliban representatives but lacked officials from Kabul, who chose to boycott the talks.

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Shanahan's arrival in the war-torn country comes amid ongoing discussions on how to reduce USA troops' presence there.

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

The talks are expected to centre around a ceasefire to end America's longest war and the withdrawal of foreign troops.

It said the trip is intended "to facilitate a peace process that protects US 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".

During his visit, Shanahan also visited a site housing an elite USA counterterrorism mission against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, an effort that many officials hope could continue even after the departure of most American troops under a peace deal.

The Afghan government said the meeting showed the continued U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

The pace of any USA troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a major point of discussion - and concern - given the strength the Taliban still wields and the group's well-established history of hosting terror groups.

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.

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