On February 11, acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan arrived in Afghanistan for previously unannounced talks with the Taliban this week, according to the Associated Press.
According to Reuters, Shanahan said the aim of his first trip abroad as Acting Secretary, was to get an understanding of the situation on the ground from commanders and brief President Trump on his findings. Once there, Shanahan met U.S. troops and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Shanahan and Ghani discussed a range of defense issues, according to Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson. The two leaders’ discussion included “achieving a political settlement to the war that ensures Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven from which terrorists can plan and launch terrorist attacks against the United States, our interests and our allies,” Robertson said.
According to The National, Shanahan said he has no orders yet to reduce the nearly 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but noted what he called strong U.S. security interests in the region. After meeting with NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Shanahan told reports that “there will be no unilateral troop reductions,” according to APNews.
The Defense Secretary’s trip comes after the U.S. and the Taliban agreed to a framework peace deal in late January. The New York Times reports that Taliban and American negotiators agreed that no terrorist insurgents would be allowed to use Afghan territory. In exchange, American troops would completely pull out of the country in return for larger concessions from the Taliban, stated the chief United States negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad. This framework deal represents the most significant step towards ending a war that began nearly two decades ago.
The government of Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, has largely been shut out of negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. However, Shanahan told reporters that “it is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan…The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future. It’s not about the U.S., it is about Afghanistan.”
An additional New York Times source reports that at an early February meeting in Moscow, Taliban representatives met with former Afghan politicians to discuss the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. This meeting was loaded with symbolism. In a hotel owned by the Kremlin, old rivals sat at the same table to discuss the exit of American troops. Notably absent, however, were representatives from Afghanistan’s democratically elected, internationally recognized government.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Shanahan’s main priority in Kabul should be to address Afghan government concerns. Shanahan’s priority “has to be to impress upon the government that we’re going to do everything we can to get you into this conversation,” Kugelman told Reuters.
Additionally a New York Times report states that Shanahan assumed the role of Secretary of Defense in an acting capacity after General Jim Mattis abruptly resigned in protest. Shanahan, who has no prior military experience, has answered questions about controversial policy moves, including defending the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria.