Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan arrives unannounced in Afghanistan

US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is leading a six nation tour to boost the peace process in Afghanistan the State Department says

Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, left, arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday morning, February 11, 2019, to consult with Army Gen. Scott Miller, right, commander of USA and coalition forces, and senior Afghan government leaders.

Shanahan was "meeting with President Ashraf Ghani to discuss a broad range of defense issues", a Monday Pentagon statement reads.

The talks come as US President Donald Trump pushes to end the Afghan conflict, where about 14,000 US troops are still deployed, and which has seen countless civilian and military deaths, as well as an infusion of more than $1 trillion in US cash into the country. "It's not about the U.S., it is about Afghanistan", he said.

Confusion has surrounded what appeared to be a decision in December to withdraw as many as half the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan, an indication of the contradictory messages that have often characterized Trump's foreign policy and internal debates about a war that even military leaders characterize as a stalemate. After Mattis resigned in December, Mr. Trump insisted he'd been unhappy with how Mattis handled Afghanistan.

'I think the presence we want in Afghanistan is what assures our homeland defence and supports regional stability'. Earlier in the day, he visited an Afghan commando training site and received an update on the war from Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, the commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces in Afghanistan. "The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like in the future". It's not about the USA, it's about Afghanistan. "It's not about the USA, it's about Afghanistan", Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.

Besides talking with Afghan government officials, Shanahan is also expected to meet United States troops and commanders on the ground during his first overseas visit in an official capacity.

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Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration's special envoy for Afghan peace talks, said Friday that although talks are in an early stage, he hopes a deal can be made by July.

But he has emphasised that any troop withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground.

The Afghan government said the meeting showed the continued USA commitment to Afghanistan.

The months-long push by the U.S. to engage the Taliban has ostensibly been aimed at convincing them to negotiate with Kabul, which the insurgents consider a U.S. puppet.

The former USA ambassador to Kabul also called for direct talks to begin as soon as possible between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which thus far has not been involved in Khalilzad's talks.

But the insurgents, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, have steadfastly refused.

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Ghani's government has been shut out of the evolving peace talks between Taliban negotiators and United States envoys, with the hardline Islamist movement branding his government a USA puppet.

The next round of talks is due on Feb 25 in Qatar where the Taliban has its political office.

Khalilzad, who held talks with Taliban representatives four times in the last four months, has expressed cautious optimism about the prospect of a deal, and even announced a draft framework, but stressed nothing had been finalized.

Ghani - who has vented frustration as his friends and enemies were pictured negotiating the future of his country - has described the Moscow talks as "nothing more than fantasy".

Afghan troops have been struggling to contain Taliban forces that control or contest about half of the country and a growing number of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).

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