KABUL – The acting Defense Secretary of the United States, who landed in Afghanistan on an unannounced trip on Monday, denied that he has received orders to reduce his nation’s military presence in the war-torn South Asian country.
On his first trip to Afghanistan since assuming office after the resignation of James N. Mattis in December last year, Patrick Shanahan said there were no orders to pull out troops from Afghanistan – one of the Taliban’s key demands in peace negotiations with US officials.
“Afghans must control their own future and be involved in ongoing peace discussions, and there are no orders to reduce US troop levels in Afghanistan,” Shanahan said, according to Colonel Dave Butler, a spokesman for Resolute Support, the NATO training mission in Afghanistan.
Butler said Shanahan would meet with both the government and Resolute Support leadership and the talks would focus on national security concerns related to Afghanistan.
Shanahan was scheduled to meet with Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, and coalition military commanders amid growing momentum in peace talks with the Taliban.
The Defense Secretary also met with his Afghan counterpart Asadullah Khalid in Kabul, and reassured him that the US military would not abandon Afghan soldiers in their battle against the insurgents.
“(The) secretary reaffirmed the US assistances to the Afghan army and assured that the United States will not let the Afghan forces alone and will continue its assistance to them in fields of training, equipping and counter-terrorism efforts,” the Afghan defense ministry said in a statement.
Shanahan’s sudden visit comes as US President Donald Trump was reportedly mulling the withdrawal of half of the 14,000 American troops stationed in the country.
“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement...but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” Trump said in his State of the Union address to Congress last week.
The withdrawal of foreign troops has been one of the key demands of Taliban leaders in their ongoing peace negotiations with US officials to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan.
The two sides have held multiple rounds of talks in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar amid opposition by President Ghani’s government, which has insisted on having a central role in the peace talks.
But the Taliban have refused to engage with the government in Kabul.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Afghan, has hailed the US-Taliban talks as “more productive than they have been in the past,” saying they have made “significant progress on vital issues.”
However, the Taliban has threatened to derail the negotiations unless it secures a commitment from the US about the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Since the end of the NATO combat mission in Jan. 2015, the Afghan government has been steadily losing ground to the Taliban.
The government currently barely controls 56 percent of the country, according to data from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction of the United States Congress.
The Taliban last week held separate talks in Moscow with a senior delegation of Afghan politicians and activists – mostly President Ghani’s political rivals, including former president Hamid Karzai.