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'Acting' on world stage as Pentagon's Shanahan makes debut

'Acting' on world stage as Pentagon's Shanahan makes debut

Patrick Shanahan, the USA acting secretary of defence, has arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit.

Afghanistan has suffered almost constant conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979, which was followed by civil war, the Taliban regime, and a U.S. invasion following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

After almost 18 years of US-led war in Afghanistan, the acting Pentagon chief, who temporarily took over after James Mattis resigned over Trump's decision to pull out of Syria, said that Afghanis must decide they future on "their own" - including how to deal with the Taliban.

Ghani spoke last week with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also stressed the importance of the Afghan government being at the centre of the peace process. Kabul is concerned that a sharp drawdown of USA forces could lead to chaos in the region. "It's not about the USA, it's about Afghanistan", Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.

It said the trip is intended "to facilitate a peace process that protects US national security interests and brings all Afghan parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue through which they can determine a path for their country's future".

The death toll of US service members in Afghanistan has surpassed 2,400 since the United States invaded the country in 2001.

Shanahan replaced Jim Mattis as head of the Defense Department after Mattis resigned in protest to Trump's policies and left the job at the end of the year.

He said he could not make any guarantees because USA peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was leading the talks.

The U.S. military turned its attention largely to Iraq in 2003, and eventually the Taliban were able to regenerate enough combat power to contest key battlefields, mainly in the south.

Shanahan said from his plane that he had no orders to "step down our forces in Afghanistan", but was tasked with supporting ongoing peace talks between Washington and the Taliban.

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

Khalilzad will also consult with the Afghan government during the trip.

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The next round of talks is due in Qatar on February 25.

Reuters meanwhile reported that 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.

"We will bring a lasting and honourable peace to the country", he said.

Mattis, a former four-star general once in charge of US Central Command, was respected for his deep knowledge of military and global affairs.

Afghanistan and neighboring countries are concerned about the effect of a sudden withdrawal of USA forces on the region.

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

Trump has offered no specifics about when he would bring home the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan but has said progress in negotiations with the Taliban would enable a troop reduction and a "focus on counter-terrorism".

"If the Taliban want an office, I will give it to them in Kabul, Nangarhar or Kandahar by tomorrow", Ghani said while visiting the province of Nangarhar, a hotbed of insurgent violence on the border with Pakistan.

"The presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defense and supports regional stability and then any type of sizing is done in a coordinated and disciplined manner", he said.

Trump has already said he is pulling out all 2,000 US troops in Syria, where they have been aiding a Syrian Arab and Kurdish alliance fighting against the Islamic State and other insurgent groups.

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

Nangarhar is a stronghold of the Taliban, the hardline Islamist movement that now controls or contests districts across almost half the country, more than 17 years since they were toppled from power.