There have been no orders from the Donald Trump administration to reduce the US military presence in Afghanistan, acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Monday as he arrived in the war-torn South Asian country on an unannounced visit. "(The) presence will evolve out of those discussions", Shanahan said.
A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense said Monday that U.S. government-backed Afghan forces are fighting the Taliban in at least 15 provinces, TOLONews reports.
During his visit, Shanahan also visited a site housing an elite USA counterterrorism mission against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, an effort that many officials hope could continue even after the departure of most American troops under a peace deal. "It is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan", he added.
Shanahan said the United States has "strong security interests in the region" which will determine what happens with U.S. troop numbers.
In Kabul, Shanahan held talks at the presidential compound with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib and other officials.
He also met his Afghan counterpart Asadullah Khalid in Kabul and reassured him that the U.S. military would not abandon Afghan soldiers in their battle against the militants.
The Taliban are so far not willing to recognize or meet the Afghan government, an obstacle that is seen as the core of the deadlock in talks. Afghan National Defense and Security Forces will ramp up attacks on Taliban strongholds, said Ghafoor Jawed, a spokesman for the ministry.
The visit came as U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who held talks with Taliban representatives lately, started a trip to Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pakistan from February 10 to 28.
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The key outcome of such a settlement seeks an honorable withdrawal of worldwide forces from Afghanistan against a self-inflicted "honorable capitulation", which entails far-reaching repercussions for the US national security and global peace.
The Afghanistan trip is Shanahan's first overseas trip since December, when the former Boeing executive stepped into the role of acting defense secretary after the resignation of former Defense Secretary James Mattis.
"Beyond a [just] political agreement, future peace talks will need to address a range of thorny issues on cease-fires, prisoner releases, and human and women's rights protections as well as how to enforce the terms of an agreement", Mr. Worden said in a recent analysis of the Afghan peace process.
In addition to battling the Taliban, U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focused on an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan. "It's not about the U.S.; it's about Afghanistan".
Shanahan met with a group of elite Afghan commandos later on Monday and backed using more resources for offensive operations by the special forces.
He has said since then there has been progress on the future of United States troops in Afghanistan.
In Kabul, Shanahan blasted earlier USA media reports saying President Donald Trump was planning to drastically reduce troop levels.
Officials have expressed concern that if USA troops leave, Afghanistan security forces, already stretched thin, could crumble.