Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

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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.

Shanahan said a withdrawal of about half the United States troops in Afghanistan was not something that was being discussed at this point and he had not been directed to reduce troop numbers. "It's not about the US, it's about Afghanistan", Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.

The Taliban has continued to insist on the total withdrawal of troops from the country, and have until now refused to engage in dialogue with the Afghan government.

Shanahan took over from Jim Mattis, who quit in December over policy differences with US President Donald Trump.

The U.S. denies that any timeline for a withdrawal has been agreed yet with the Taliban, though CBS News senior national security correspondent David Martin reported just before Christmas that the Pentagon had been ordered to start planning the withdrawal of roughly 7,000 troops.

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USA officials have held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar since a year ago in what is widely seen as the most serious bid yet for peace in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by US -backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

The statement said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan who has undertaken extensive recent talks with the Taliban, would head an interagency delegation from February 10 to 28.

Khalilzad will also consult with the Afghan government during the trip.

The next round of talks is due in Qatar on February 25.

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. Yet he chose instead to add about 3500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the U.S. effort to train and advise Afghan forces. Since then, the administration has said it achieved a tentative "framework" for fuller peace negotiations with the Taliban.

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Shanahan, who is also due to meet General Scott Miller, the top U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation commander in Afghanistan, told reporters aboard his flight to Kabul that he had no instructions from Washington to begin a withdrawal.

However, the Taliban have put out contradictory information on what timeline the United States had agreed to in any potential withdrawal.

The pace of any USA troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a major point of discussion - and concern - given the strength the Taliban still wields and the group's well-established history of hosting terror groups.

It was Shanahan's first-ever visit to Afghanistan, where American troops have been at war for 17 years and the Trump administration is pushing for a peace deal with the Taliban.

Shanahan met with a group of elite Afghan commandos later on Monday and backed using more resources for offensive operations by the special forces.

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