Shana­han of­fers few de­tails on draw­down

No timetable for 14,000 U.S. troops

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

With an Afghanistan peace deal seem­ingly within reach, Act­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Pa­trick Shana­han made a sur­prise trip to the coun­try Mon­day to visit U.S. troops and meet with top gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Kabul, his first trip abroad since tak­ing over the Pen­tagon’s top job last month.

But Mr. Shana­han said he car­ried no or­ders from Pres­i­dent Trump to be­gin draw­ing down the 14,000 Amer­i­can forces de­ployed there, which re­mains a key point in on­go­ing talks with the Tal­iban.

The trip marked the first time Mr. Shana­han, a for­mer Boe­ing ex­ec­u­tive who took over as act­ing de­fense sec­re­tary fol­low­ing the res­ig­na­tion of James Mat­tis, has ever been to Afghanistan. He told re­porters trav­el­ing aboard his plane that he’s en­cour­aged Mr. Trump is search­ing for ways to end the con­flict in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been fight­ing since the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

His trip comes at a piv­otal mo­ment for the fu­ture of Afghanistan, where the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has strug­gled to main­tain con­trol over much of the

coun­try amid a resur­gence by the Tal­iban and other rad­i­cal Is­lamist forces, a resur­gence that’s in­cluded di­rect as­saults on Amer­i­can per­son­nel. New U.S. en­voy Zal­may Khalilzad re­cently held a se­ries of meet­ings with Tal­iban of­fi­cials in Qatar, and while both sides came out op­ti­mistic, they are still far from a sweep­ing cease-fire deal or a recog­ni­tion by the Tal­iban of Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani’s gov­ern­ment.

The Tal­iban also is seek­ing as­sur­ances that Amer­i­can forces will soon exit the coun­try, and have even claimed a pri­vate ac­cord to pull Amer­i­can forces out by this spring.

De­spite re­ports that Mr. Trump plans to soon or­der a draw­down of at least half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Mr. Shana­han said he’s re­ceived no such or­der, and he of­fered no clar­ity on when the troops will be­gin com­ing home.

He did, how­ever, try to down­play the U.S. role in Afghanistan’s fu­ture.

“The Afghans have to de­cide what Afghanistan looks like,” Mr. Shana­han said. “It’s not about the U.S., it’s about Afghanistan.”

While the ad­min­is­tra­tion seems to be mov­ing to­ward a mil­i­tary draw­down in Afghanistan, of­fi­cials still cast the Amer­i­can role there as crit­i­cal to U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity.

“Great to have [Sec­re­tary Shana­han] here vis­it­ing with the ser­vice mem­bers — these men and women are fight­ing to pro­tect Amer­ica; deny­ing safe haven to ter­ror­ists across Afghanistan,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Col. Dave But­ler tweeted Mon­day.

Af­ter meet­ing with Mr. Ghani and other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Kabul, Mr. Shana­han met with Afghan com­man­dos who have been trained by Amer­i­can forces and have played a lead­ing role in re­cent U.S.-backed mil­i­tary of­fen­sives against the Tal­iban.

Fol­low­ing the Afghanistan stop, Mr. Shana­han will travel to Brus­sels for a meet­ing with his NATO coun­ter­parts — his first ap­pear­ance on the world stage since tak­ing over at the Pen­tagon.

Even as Mr. Shana­han was in the coun­try, Mr. Ghani on Mon­day re­jected the Tal­iban-backed idea of an in­terim gov­ern­ment in Kabul. He stressed that Afghan elec­tions will go for­ward this sum­mer as sched­uled.

Even though Tal­iban lead­ers have stead­fastly re­fused to meet di­rectly with his gov­ern­ment, Mr. Ghani said Mon­day the na­tion should hold a loya jirga — the tra­di­tional gath­er­ing of Afghan po­lit­i­cal and tribal lead­ers — to reach a last­ing peace deal.

Mr. Trump has made clear that he in­tends to ful­fill key cam­paign prom­ises and be­gin bring­ing U.S. forces home. Hav­ing al­ready be­gun a with­drawal from Syria, where forces had been bat­tling the Is­lamic State, the pres­i­dent last week used his State of the Union ad­dress to de­cry the “end­less wars” that he said have been a sta­ple of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy for the past two decades.

But that ap­proach has drawn fire from law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing many in his own part, who ar­gue that the U.S. could cre­ate a power vac­uum that al­lows the Tal­iban to re­gain con­trol over much of Afghanistan. Is­lamic State has also es­tab­lished a pres­ence in the coun­try even as its base in Syria and Iraq has been vir­tu­ally wiped out by the U.S. and its al­lies.

Re­gional an­a­lysts say the ad­min­is­tra­tion should pro­ceed cau­tiously and look to his­tory as a guide, point­ing out that the Tal­iban also had promised to share power with the gov­ern­ment in Kabul in the late 1990s be­fore ul­ti­mately seiz­ing to­tal con­trol and al­low­ing al Qaeda to use the coun­try as a base of op­er­a­tions.

“The Tal­iban lied then, and there is no ev­i­dence that the group’s as­sur­ances are any more mean­ing­ful now, espe­cially as the Tal­iban and the United States do not ac­cept a com­mon def­i­ni­tion of ter­ror­ism,” Michael Ru­bin, a Mid­dle East scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, wrote in a piece Mon­day for The Na­tional In­ter­est.

“If the United States de­parts, then it is likely that the Tal­iban will con­sol­i­date con­trol over the ma­jor­ity of Afghanistan,” he said. “The United States ap­pears will­ing to leave Kabul high and dry; it is un­likely that out­side pow­ers will pro­vide the Afghan gov­ern­ment with the bil­lions of dol­lars the World Bank says it needs to stay afloat. The Tal­iban, mean­while, can rely on Pak­istani sup­port.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

AN END IN AFGHANISTAN: Act­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Pa­trick Shana­han (left) ar­rives in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Mon­day, to con­sult with Army Gen. Scott Miller (right) com­man­der of U.S. and coali­tion forces, and gov­ern­ment lead­ers.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“The Afghans have to de­cide what Afghanistan looks like,” said Act­ing Sec­re­tary of De­fense Pa­trick Shana­han about the U.S. role in the na­tion. “It’s not about the U.S., it’s about Afghanistan,” he said.

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