USA envoy heads 6-nation tour for 'intra-Afghan' talks

Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad approaches the microphone to speak on the prospects for peace Friday Feb. 8 2019 at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington

Over the past few weeks, a United States delegation has been engaged in talks with the Afghan officials trying to prepare for a USA pullout.

"Our demand about having an official political office is clear, we want that our office in Doha is recognised by the worldwide community and the United Nations", Shahin said.

The High Peace Council's spokesman Sayed Ehsan Taheri, meanwhile, said any decision on troop withdrawal ahead before Afghan government-Taliban talks is not in favor of Afghanistan.

Shanahan said from his plane that he had no orders to "step down our forces in Afghanistan", but was tasked with supporting ongoing peace talks between Washington and the Taliban.

"We are awaiting for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban", Taheri said.

President Donald Trump has been pushing to end USA involvement in Afghanistan, where 14,000 American troops are still deployed.

The death toll of USA service members in Afghanistan has surpassed 2,400 since the United States invaded the country in 2001.

Shanahan replaced Jim Mattis, who quit in December over policy differences with US President Donald Trump. Shanahan had been Mattis' No. 2.

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

In testimony before Congress last week, General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying the manoeuvring between US and Taliban negotiators is "our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began".

Afghanistan's highly regarded special forces units suffered increasingly heavy casualties past year as the Taliban mounted major assaults on provincial centers including Ghazni city and Farah city in the southwest. Just last week, the insurgents killed some two dozen Afghan troops in an attack on an army base in northern Kunduz province. "Left unchecked", Votel said in his report to Congress, ISIS-Khorasan "will continue to grow as a threat to our homeland". "(The) presence will evolve out of those discussions", Shanahan said.

"If something hasn't been completely eradicated, there is a risk of it returning", he said.

While the US talks with the Taliban have focused on troop presence and assurances that terrorist networks would not be given haven, Khalilzad said intra-Afghan talks could also deal with human rights, freedom of the press and the role of women, who were harshly oppressed under Taliban rule.

Trump has taken an ambivalent approach to Afghanistan, saying his instinct upon entering office in 2017 was to withdraw. Yet he chose instead to add about 3,500 troops in 2017-2018 to bolster the USA effort to train and advise Afghan forces. After Mattis resigned in December, Trump insisted that he had been unhappy with how Mattis handled Afghanistan.

Khalilzad recently finished a similar trip during which his talks with the Taliban produced a tentative framework agreement, but he warned last week that the negotiations are far from finished.

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