- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2019

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan took a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Monday, his first-ever visit to the country where U.S. troops have been stationed for 17 years.

The trip, Mr. Shanahan’s first foreign visit since taking over the reins at the Defense Department on Jan. 1, comes amid peace negotiations with the Taliban and President Trump’s stated mission to stop “endless wars” in the Middle East.

While Mr. Trump reportedly wants to cut in half the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and Taliban leaders have made a U.S. withdrawal a key condition in peace negotiations, Mr. Shanahan told reporters Monday that he has no orders to reduce the American troop presence. The acting defense chief said that while the U.S. has a key role to play, it’s ultimately up to Afghans to find peace.

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

Late last week, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said that his team has agreed in principle to a roadmap for peace with Taliban. The two sides have been meeting in Qatar over the past month.

Mr. Khalilizad said it’s possible the U.S. and Taliban could reach a deal before the Afghan presidential election in July.

So far, Taliban officials have refused to hold direct talks with the government in Kabul or meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. U.S. officials believe the Taliban’s position may change after the July election.

Mr. Shanahan reportedly will meet with Mr. Ghani on Monday.

A former top executive at Boeing for three decades before becoming assistant defense secretary in July 2017, Mr. Shanahan had never before been to Afghanistan. His personal views on the conflict, and on American’s broader military role in the region, remain something of a mystery.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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