Acting Pentagon chief supports Kabul role in peace talks

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A senior U.S. diplomat is set to lead a large delegation on a six-nation tour, including Afghanistan, to boost that country's peace process and bring "all Afghan parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue", the State Department said Sunday.

"It is important that the Afghan government is involved in discussions regarding Afghanistan", Shanahan said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday offered the Taliban the possibility of opening an office in Afghanistan but the proposal was swiftly spurned by the group that is determined to keep his government out of accelerating peace talks.

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

Both sides hailed progress after the latest round last month, although significant obstacles remain.

Shanahan's performance on the global stage could influence whether President Donald Trump elevates the longtime Boeing executive from his uncertain status as interim Pentagon leader to be the administration's nominee to replace Jim Mattis.

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.

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

The pace of any US 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. Shanahan had been Mattis' No 2.

Shanahan, 56, has said his priorities would include the impending USA troop withdrawal from Syria and countering China's military might.

Shanahan's views on the Afghan war are not widely known.

In his remarks to reporters during his flight to Kabul, Shanahan said that although the ISIS presence in Syria "has been decimated", local Syrian security forces are needed to ensure stability.

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. 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.

"Of course it has given leverage to the Taliban, there is no question about that", the official told Reuters.

Sources close to Taliban said that this time, the talks will be held between the USA special envoy and Taliban representatives led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was released from Pakistan's prison last month.

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