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US sends defence chief to Kabul ahead of peace talks

February 12, 2019

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Kabul: Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan (centre left) takes part in a meeting with Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib on Monday.—AFP
Kabul: Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan (centre left) takes part in a meeting with Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib on Monday.—AFP

WASHINGTON: The United States sent its defence chief to Afghanistan on Monday apparently to assure the Afghan government that Washington has no plan to abandon Kabul even after it reaches a peace deal with the Taliban.

Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan arrived in Kabul two days before defence ministers from 29 Nato countries meet in Brussels to review the alliance’s support to the Afghan government and Afghan security forces.

After the last ministerial meeting in June, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had assured Kabul that the alliance wanted to “strengthen the Afghan security forces so they can create the conditions for a peaceful solution.”

Mr Shanahan’s unannounced visit, also his first as the US defence chief, meant to “signal American support for the jittery Afghan government while the US holds talks with the Taliban to end the country’s 17-year war,” The Wall Street Journal observed.

CNN noted that the visit came “amid increasing uncertainty about the future of the longest-running US war in history.”

The Afghan government has been excluded from the latest effort to negotiate a settlement of the conflict. The Taliban view the Kabul administration as illegitimate and refuse to talk to them, preferring instead to hold direct talks with US officials.

Chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has already held a series of negotiations with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, and he left Washington on Sunday for more talks in Doha, Kabul and Islamabad.

Mr Shanahan, while talking to the media team travelling with him, assured the Afghan government that the US disagreed with the Taliban on this issue.

“It is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan,” he said. “The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like. It’s not about the US, it’s about Afghanistan.”

Mr Shanahan also said that the US military had “strong security interests in the region” and was discussing those interests with the Taliban as well.

The US defence chief said that so far he had not received any withdrawal orders from the White House, although media reports have suggested that Washington plans to withdraw at least half of the 14,000 US troops still deployed in Afghanistan.

Mr Shanahan, however, welcomed the US-Taliban talks, saying he was encouraged that Washington was exploring all possibilities for ending the longest US military engagement in history.

Mr Shanahan’s predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned in protest when US President Donald Trump announced his plans to pull out troops from Afghanistan and Syria. Brett McGurk, the American envoy to the coalition to fight ISIS, also stepped down.

On Sunday, President Ghani said the Taliban were welcome to open an office in Kabul, Kandahar or Nangarhar to continue the peace talks that have so far been held in Doha.

But a Taliban spokesman later told reporters that they would prefer to stay in Doha, where they have had an office since 2013, and would try to get international recognition of this outpost.

In Washington, the US State Depa­rtment said Ambassador Khalilzad will “consult with the Afghan government throughout (his Feb 10-28) trip” and will also meet US allies and partners to discuss mutual efforts to advance the Afghan peace process.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2019