Top Pentagon official in Afghanistan amid push for peace

Taliban political chief Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai first row second from left Abdul Salam Hanafi and other Taliban officials pray during the peace talks in Moscow Russia on Wednesday Feb 6 2019. ─ AP  File

Zalmay Khalilzad, the USA special envoy leading the talks, has expressed hope at finding a deal before Afghan presidential elections scheduled for July. Kabul is concerned that a sharp drawdown of USA forces could lead to chaos in the region.

The US has also been calling for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government - especially after Moscow hosted a conference of high-profile Afghan delegates, which featured Taliban representatives but lacked officials from Kabul, who chose to boycott the talks.

Afghanistan and neighboring countries are also concerned about the effect a sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces could have on the region.

Acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan greets an Afghan commando at Camp Commando, afghanistan, on February 11, 2019.

He also said the United States has important security interests in the region.

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.

USA officials have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar since a year ago in what is widely seen as the most serious bid yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by US -backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

In Kabul, Shanahan held talks at the presidential compound with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib and other officials.

Both sides hailed progress after the latest round last month, although significant obstacles remain.

"But we need to give them time and space", he said.

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"Our demand about having an official political office is clear, we want that our office in Doha is recognised by the global community and the United Nations", Shahin said.

At the same time, USA and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces continue their effort to ensure that Afghanistan's military, which has taken heavy casualties and remains reliant on its small cadre of elite commandos for offensive operations, can fend off Taliban attacks.

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.

"In short, the US may find it hard to convince Afghans to permit a heavily counterterrorism or even counterterrorism-only mission without making other concessions and at least agreeing to sustain funding for the Afghan security forces", he said.

"The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future".

Taliban officials in Moscow last week stressed the importance of a formal office among a string of demands that included the removal of Western sanctions and travel bans on Taliban members, prisoner releases and an end to "propaganda" against the group.

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

The Taliban have put out contradictory information on what timeline the United States has agreed to in any potential withdrawal.

Most recently, a Taliban official said no timetable had been agreed with the USA government for the partial withdrawal of U.S. forces. So far, though, he noted that the Taliban have been unwilling to take this step, arguing that the government is illegitimate.

In December, the Trump administration ordered the military to start devising plans to withdraw roughly 7,000 personnel from Afghanistan in the coming months. Yet he chose instead to add about 3500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the United States effort to train and advise Afghan forces.

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