U.S. Afghan envoy to kick off intensive trip of 6 countries

U.S. Afghan envoy to kick off intensive trip of 6 countries

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan landed in Afghanistan for an unannounced visit Monday amid increasing uncertainty about the future of the longest-running US war in history.

Instead they met directly with US negotiators in Doha last month for peace talks described by US President Donald Trump as "constructive".

President Trump is pushing to end United States involvement in Afghanistan, where 14,000 American troops are still deployed. "(The) presence will evolve out of those discussions", Shanahan said.

Shanahan said the United States has "strong security interests in the region" which will determine what happens with U.S. troop numbers.

USA officials, led by chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar and other countries in the region in the past eight months, in what is widely seen as the most serious bid yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by U.S. troops and US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense said Monday that USA government-backed Afghan forces are fighting the Taliban in at least 15 provinces, TOLONews reports.

Shanahan's inaugural overseas trip as acting defense secretary comes as he seeks to prove his foreign policy credentials and establish a more public profile after 1 ½ years as deputy defense secretary under Mattis.

In Kabul, Shanahan held talks at the presidential compound with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib and other officials.

The next round of talks is due in Qatar on February 25.

He said he could not make any guarantees because US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was leading the talks. Shanahan had been Mattis' No. 2. "We are in the early stage of a protracted process", he said. "It's not about the USA, it is about Afghanistan".

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

Shanahan's visit to Afghanistan came as the United Nations said it was investigating "credible" reports of Afghan civilian deaths and injuries from an airstrike over the weekend in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold.

An Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said even the suggestion of US troops 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.

"The presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defense and supports regional stability and then any type of sizing is done in a coordinated and disciplined manner", he said.

"In short, the USA may find it hard to convince Afghans to permit a heavily counterterrorism or even counterterrorism-only mission without making other concessions and at least agreeing to sustain funding for the Afghan security forces", he said.

Votel noted that the Taliban are still capable of inflicting significant casualties on Afghan government forces.

"The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future".

While the USA talks with the Taliban have focused on troop presence and assurances that terrorist networks would not be given haven, Khalilzad said intra-Afghan talks could also deal with human rights, freedom of the press and the role of women, who were harshly oppressed under Taliban rule. Yet he chose instead to add about 3500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the U.S. effort to train and advise Afghan forces.

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