Afghan officials were treated to a surprise visit by the acting US Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, who arrived unannounced, apparently to discuss peace talks and the prospects for American military presence in the region.
United States officials have told Reuters that, while no formal orders have been sent, the military is preparing for what a withdrawal of about half of the 14,000 USA troops in Afghanistan would look like.
According to multiple reports, Shanahan told reporters Monday that he did not have orders to start withdrawing troops, but a Taliban political official said in Moscow last week that the Taliban had already received word from the USA that Pentagon personnel in the country would be halved.
Speaking to reporters ahead of his arrival, Shanahan said he had not received orders to withdraw. "It's not about the U.S. It is about Afghanistan", he added.
Talk of any substantial troop reduction appears to be on hold for now as the White House tries to give diplomats a chance to foster peace talks.
The State Department said Khalilzad would travel on February 10-28 to Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
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.
He has said since then there has been progress on the future of US troops in Afghanistan.
Negotiators hope the talks with Taliban officials could herald a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict.
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.
US troops invaded in October 2001 and toppled the Taliban government within weeks after Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network launched the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan.
A December Pentagon assessment described the battlefield situation as a continued impasse but said "the combination of military escalation and diplomatic initiative have made a favorable political settlement more likely than at any time in recent memory".
Those include the involvement of the Afghan government, which the Taliban refuses to acknowledge.
According to a statement issued later by Cmdr.
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.
It said the trip is intended "to facilitate a peace process that protects USA 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".
Shanahan's trip comes as the USA special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is setting off on a visit to several key countries as part of efforts to push a US peace initiative for the war-torn country.
But Jason H. Campbell, an Afghanistan scholar at the Rand Corp., said securing that kind of a longer-term presence might not be possible if it is not accompanied by a larger effort to continue to fund and support Afghan forces.
Trump has already said he is pulling out all 2,000 USA troops in Syria, where they have been aiding a Syrian Arab and Kurdish alliance fighting against the Islamic State and other insurgent groups.
Shanahan will also have to grapple with how much allies will trust him. Military officials have taken part in some of the meetings with the Taliban.
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