U.S. envoy heads 6-nation tour for 'intra-Afghan' talks

Blanche Robertson
February 13, 2019

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.

"I have not been directed to step down our forces in Afghanistan", Shanahan said.

Indeed, the Afghan people felt betrayed when the USA -led "Free World", on whose behalf Afghans had fought and defeated the Soviet forces, disengaged from Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The militants, who were toppled by US-led forces in 2001, last week held separate talks in Moscow with a senior delegation of Afghan politicians - including chief Ghani rivals. "We want the war to end this year", the longtime U.S. diplomat and Afghan native said during a briefing on the negotiations at the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP).

He also met his Afghan counterpart Asadullah Khalid in Kabul and reassured him that the USA military would not abandon Afghan soldiers in their battle against the militants.

Despite such progress, challenges to a lasting peace in Afghanistan remain.

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.

In a latest development, Afghan forces on Sunday cleared some villages of Taliban in a key district in the northern Takhar province, according to Ministry of Defense.

The attendees in Moscow talks, held on February 5 and 6, issued a nine-article declaration in which the two sides agreed on continuation of the talks, supporting a powerful centralized government and on protecting the achievements of last 18 years in Afghanistan.

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In testimony before Congress last week, General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying the manoeuvring between US and Taliban negotiators is "our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began". It's a stark contrast with the overwhelming optimism of the Afghan people for a future of peace with liberty and dignity, which is achievable with continued worldwide support.

The Trump administration's special envoy for Afghanistan is returning to the country after stops in Europe and the Middle East for an extended diplomatic tour aimed at pushing a USA peace initiative. In December, he announced the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria, citing the defeat of the ISIS terrorist group and that USA forces were no longer needed there. There are now around 14,000 USA troops stationed in Afghanistan.

"Of course it has given leverage to the Taliban, there is no question about that", the official told Reuters.

'I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defence and supports regional stability'.

Khalilzad said after six days of talks with the Taliban in Doha last month the United States and the Taliban had sketched the outlines for an eventual peace accord.

Most recently, a Taliban official said no timetable had been agreed with the US government for the partial withdrawal of USA forces.

In Kabul, Shanahan blasted earlier United States media reports saying President Donald Trump was planning to drastically reduce troop levels.

Officials have expressed concern that Afghan security forces, already stretched thin, could crumble if U.S. troops leave.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Shanahan's main priority in Kabul should be to address Afghan government concerns.

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