Top Pentagon official in Afghanistan amid push for peace

Talks with the Taliban have previously been made to negotiate peace. (File/AFP)
Updated 11 February 2019

Top Pentagon official in Afghanistan amid push for peace

  • The unannounced visit is the first for the acting secretary of defense, Pat Shanahan
  • Shanahan said he is encouraged that Trump’s administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war

KABUL, Afghanistan: The Pentagon’s top official made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Monday to meet with US commanders and Afghan leaders amid a push for peace with the Taliban.
Pat Shanahan, the recently installed acting secretary of defense, said he has no orders to reduce the US troop presence, although officials say that is at the top of the Taliban’s list of demands in exploratory peace negotiations.
Shanahan said he is encouraged that President Donald Trump’s administration is exploring all possibilities for ending a 17-year war, the longest in American history.
But he stressed that peace terms are for the Afghans to decide. Thus far the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, calling it illegitimate. Washington is trying to break that impasse.
“The Afghans have to decide what Afghanistan looks like. It’s not about the US, it’s about Afghanistan,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s special envoy for Afghan peace talks, said Friday that although talks are in an early stage, he hopes a deal can be made by July. That is when Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election.
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who had never been in Afghanistan until Monday, was scheduled to meet with Ghani and other top government officials.
Shanahan took over as acting secretary of defense on Jan. 1 after Jim Mattis submitted his resignation in December. Shanahan had been Mattis’ No. 2.
Shanahan’s views on the Afghan war are not widely known. He said he would use this week’s visit to inform his thinking and to report back to Trump.
In testimony before Congress last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, offered a largely optimistic view of Afghanistan, saying the current maneuvering between US and Taliban negotiators is “our first real opportunity for peace and reconciliation since the war began.”
Votel noted that the Taliban are still capable of inflicting significant casualties on Afghan government forces. Just last week the insurgents killed some two dozen Afghan troops in an attack on an army base in northern Kunduz province.
In addition to battling the Taliban, US and coalition forces in Afghanistan are focused on a Daesh affiliate known as Daesh-Khorasan, comprised of foreign fighters largely from Pakistan. “Left unchecked,” Votel said in his report to Congress, Daesh-Khorasan “will continue to grow as a threat to our homeland.”
In his remarks to reporters during his flight to Kabul, Shanahan said that although the Islamic State presence in Syria “has been decimated,” local Syrian security forces are needed to ensure stability. He said IS still has a global presence.
“If something hasn’t been completely eradicated, there is a risk of it returning,” he said.
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 US effort to train and advise Afghan forces. After Mattis resigned in December, Trump insisted that he had been unhappy with how Mattis handled Afghanistan. Since then, the administration has said it achieved a tentative “framework” for fuller peace negotiations with the Taliban.
“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement,” Trump said in his State of the Union address to Congress last week, “but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace.”


Lampedusa mayor slams Rome over migrant boat standoff

Updated 51 min 50 sec ago

Lampedusa mayor slams Rome over migrant boat standoff

  • “The island no longer exists politically. It is just exploited in political clashes in Rome.”

LAMPEDUSA, Italy: The mayor of Italy’s Lampedusa island on Thursday denounced the collapsing government for its failure to deal with migrant rescue boats, as a ship carrying 356 people remained stranded in the Mediterranean.
Mayor Salvatore Martello said the reception center on the tiny isle was already over capacity and would struggle to house migrants currently stuck aboard the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking.
The vessel, run by charities Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, has sought a port for almost two weeks after rescuing four boats of migrants off the Libyan coast between 9 and 12 August.
“It would be difficult because the reception center is saturated,” Martello told AFP.
“The island no longer exists politically. It is just exploited in political clashes in Rome.”
Lampedusa has long been a magnet for African migrants fleeing poverty and conflict.
Thousands have attempted to make the unsafe crossing from Libya in a bid to reach Europe this year, despite efforts to deter them.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has been accused of demonizing migrants and leaving them to drown in the sea.
He has repeatedly insisted that rescued migrants can only land in Italy if other EU countries take them in.
Italy’s president on Thursday was holding a second day of talks after the disintegration of the anti-immigrant coalition government, which broke down after the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Tuesday.
The plight of the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking, which was denied entry by both Italy and Malta, is the latest in a string of migrant boat standoffs with Italian authorities.
The Open Arms rescue ship was allowed to land in Lampedusa on Wednesday, with 83 migrants disembarking, after Italian justice ordered they be brought ashore.
Many of them had spent 19 days on board the ship after being picked up while in difficulty in waters off Libya.
There were initially 147 mainly African migrants on the ship but all minors and some suffering health problems had already disembarked.
A European deal to redistribute them has yet to be implemented.