Acting U.S. defense secretary Patrick Shanahan arrived in Afghanistan on Monday and said it was important the Afghan government is involved in talks, from which it has so far been excluded, to end the 17-year-old war.
Shanahan, who will meet U.S. troops and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on his first trip in his new role, said he had so far not received any direction to reduce the nearly 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
He also said the United States has important security interests in the region.
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. Kabul is also concerned that a sharp drawdown of U.S. forces could lead to chaos in the region.
“It is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan,” Shanahan told a small group of reporters traveling with him on the unannounced trip.
“The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It’s not about the U.S., it is about Afghanistan,” he said.
Shanahan took over from Jim Mattis, who quit in December over policy differences with U.S. President Donald Trump.
He said he could not make any guarantees because U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was leading the talks.
“The U.S. military has strong security interests in the region. (The) presence will evolve out of those discussions,” Shanahan said.
He also said his goal on the trip was to get an understanding of the situation on the ground from commanders and then to brief Trump on his findings.
U.S. officials have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar since last year in what is widely seen as the most serious bid yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Both sides hailed progress after the latest round last month, although significant obstacles remain. Those include the involvement of the Afghan government, which the Taliban refuse to acknowledge.
The next round of talks is due in Qatar on Feb. 25.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Shanahan’s main priority in Kabul should be to address Afghan government concerns.
“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.