U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan has arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit to meet with military commanders and Afghan officials amid a heightened push by Washington for a peace deal with the Taliban.
Shanahan, who arrived early on February 11, told reporters traveling with him that he will stress in talks with Afghan leaders that they will be the ones to ultimately decide their future, including the final nature of any potential peace with the Taliban.
“It is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan,” Shanahan said.
“The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It’s not about the U.S. It is about Afghanistan,” he added.
Some in Afghanistan have opposed any peace deal with the Taliban, while the Taliban has so far refused to negotiate with the government in Kabul, calling government officials puppets of the West.
Shanahan also said he has no instructions from the White House to reduce the troop level in Afghanistan from the current 14,000.
Reports have circulated that U.S. President Donald Trump is looking to cut about half of the force as part of efforts to reduce U.S. military involvement in the region.
Trump has already said he is pulling out all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, where they have been aiding a Syrian Arab and Kurdish alliance fighting against the Islamic State and other insurgent groups.
Shanahan’s trip comes as the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is setting off on a visit to several key countries as part of efforts to push a U.S. peace initiative for the war-torn country.
The State Department said Khalilzad would travel on February 10-28 to Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Khalilzad recently returned from talks with the Taliban in the Gulf nation of Qatar.
It was not immediately clear if Shanahan and Khalilzad would be conducting joint discussions during their trips.
Shanahan said in late January that he saw “some very encouraging possibilities” in Khalilzad’s negotiations with the Taliban.
“But we need to give them time and space,” he said.
Shanahan replaced Jim Mattis as head of the Defense Department after Mattis resigned in protest to Trump’s policies and left the job at the end of the year.
In televised remarks on January 2, Trump said he “essentially fired” Mattis, who had been one of the longest-serving and most respected members of the U.S. cabinet.
“I’m not happy with what [he has] done in Afghanistan — and I shouldn’t be happy,” said Trump, as Shanahan sat by his side.
Shanahan, 56, has said his priorities would include the impending U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and countering China’s military might.
Shanahan is expected to attend a meeting of NATO defense chiefs in Brussels on February 13-14 and then the Munich Security Conference in Germany on February 15-17.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters.