Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan says there is no order to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and the Afghan government should participate in peace talks with the Taliban, in remarks on a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Monday.
Shanahan met the US commander and troops and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the unannounced one-day visit, his first in his new role.
Reports that Donald Trump, president of the United States wants to withdraw about half of the estimated 14,000 US forces in Afghanistan, has raised concerns among Afghan and regional officials about the effect it might have on security in the country.
Afghan troops have been struggling to contain Taliban forces that control or contest about half of the country and a growing number of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
Shanahan said the US has “strong security interests in the region” which would determine what happened with US troop numbers.
“I have not been directed to step down our forces in Afghanistan,” Shanahan said.
“I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defence and supports regional stability.”
He said the aim of his trip was to get an understanding of the situation on the ground from commanders and then brief Trump on his findings.
US officials, led by chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar and other countries in the region in the past eight months, in what is widely seen as the most serious bid yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taliban were removed by US troops and US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Ghani’s government has not been included in the talks. The Taliban has refused to meet the Afghan government calling it a “puppet” of the US.
Shanahan echoed what Washington had been saying for months, that any eventual peace deal would have to include the government.
“The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It’s not about the US, it’s about Afghanistan,” Shanahan said.
“The US has significant – significant – investment in ensuring security, but the Afghans decide their future,” he said.
Shanahan’s meeting with Ghani covered a range of defence issues important to the bilateral relationship, Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson said.
That included “achieving a political settlement to the war that ensures Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven from which terrorists can plan and launch terrorist attacks against the United States, our interests and our allies,” Robertson said.
The Afghan government said the meeting showed the continued US commitment to Afghanistan.
“Both sides said that the peace process and the fight against terrorism will continue, and the military and security alliance between Afghanistan and US will continue until peace is achieved,” the president’s palace said in a statement after Ghani’s meeting with Shanahan.
Khalilzad has expressed hope of finding a deal before Afghan presidential elections scheduled for July but has emphasised that any troop withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground.
The next round of talks is due on Feb 25 in Qatar where the Taliban has its political office.
Shanahan’s visit to Afghanistan came as the United Nations said it was investigating “credible” reports of Afghan civilian deaths and injuries from an air attack over the weekend in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said late on Sunday it would share its findings once an inquiry into the “aerial operations” in Sangin district was completed.
The Taliban is responsible for about half of civilian casualties, with the remaining deaths and injuries attributed to ISIL and coalition attack, according to a UNAMA report.
But air attacks have stepped up and the UN has said civilians continue to pay a disproportionate price in the fighting.
The US dropped 7,362 weapons during air attacks in 2018 in Afghanistan – approaching double the number of 2017, US Air Forces Central Command figures show.