KABUL • Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who arrived in Afghanistan yesterday, said it was important that the Afghan government was involved in talks, from which it has so far been excluded, to end the 17-year-old war.
Mr Shanahan, who will meet American troops and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on his first trip in his new role, said he had so far not had any order to reduce the nearly 14,000 US troops in the country.
Mr Ghani's government has been shut out of the evolving peace talks between Taleban negotiators and US envoys, with the hardline Islamist movement branding his government a US puppet. Kabul is also concerned that a sharp drawdown of American forces could lead to chaos in the region.
"It is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan," Mr Shanahan told reporters travelling with him on the unannounced trip. "The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It's not about the US, it is about Afghanistan."
The acting defence chief also said he could not make any guarantees because US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was leading the talks. "The US military has strong security interests in the region. (The) presence will evolve out of those discussions," Mr Shanahan said.
He told reporters that his goal on the trip was to get an understanding of the situation on the ground from commanders and then brief Mr Trump on his findings.
US officials have held several rounds of talks with the Taleban in Qatar since last year in what is widely seen as the most serious bid yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taleban was ousted by US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Both sides hailed progress after the latest round last month, although significant obstacles remain. Those include the involvement of the Afghan government. The next round of talks is due in Qatar on Feb 25.
Mr Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, said Mr Shanahan's main priority in Kabul should be to address Afghan government concerns.
"The top priority of Shanahan has to be to impress upon the government that we're going to do everything we can to get you into this conversation," Mr Kugelman said.
Afghanistan and neighbouring countries are also concerned about the effect of a sudden withdrawal of US forces on the region.
Mr Trump has offered no specifics about when he would bring home the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan but has said progress in negotiations with the Taleban would enable a troop reduction and a "focus on counter-terrorism".
Officials have expressed concern that if US troops leave, Afghanistan security forces, already stretched thin, could crumble.