Acting Pentagon chief makes unannounced Afghanistan trip

Patrick Shanahan, the US acting secretary of defence, has arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit.

Shanahan will meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose government was not part of major talks between US and Taliban officials last month that negotiators hope could bring a breakthrough in the 17-year conflict.

“It is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan,” Shanahan told a small group of reporters travelling with him on the surprise trip on Monday.

The acting Pentagon chief said Washington has important security interests in the region and wanted to hear from commanders on the ground.

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

The Taliban has refused to negotiate directly with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, calling it a “puppet” of the West.  ButGhani’s allies in Washington insist Afghans should lead the peace process.

Since being appointed last September as the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad  has carried out a number of rounds of talks with the Taliban and other regional representatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, India, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. 

The US envoy’s most recent talks were in Doha late last month where the two sides met for six days.

“Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past. We made significant progress on vital issues,” he wrote on Twitter.

Washington wants assurances that Afghanistan will not harbour groups that would use the country as a base to launch attacks on the US. The Taliban want all American troops to withdraw.

In December, there were numerous reports that US President Donald Trump planned to halve the estimated 14,000 US forces in Afghanistan. 

In his State of the Union address last week, Trump said any troop pullout would be linked to progress in peace talks. 

Al Jazeera and news agencies

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