Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan arrives unannounced in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani attends a two-day conference on Afghanistan at the United Nations in Geneva Switzerland

Khalilzad told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Friday that he hopes a final deal can be clinched before Afghanistan's presidential election in July.

The acting Pentagon chief said Washington has important security interests in the region and wanted to hear from commanders on the ground.

Shanahan, 56, has said his priorities would include the impending US troop withdrawal from Syria and countering China's military might. "It's not about the USA, it's about Afghanistan", Shanahan told reporters traveling with him from Washington.

Ghani's government has been shut out of the evolving peace talks between Taliban negotiators and USA envoys, with the hardline Islamist movement branding his government a United States puppet.

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

Shanahan said: 'I have not been directed to step down our forces in Afghanistan.

Shanahan replaced Jim Mattis as head of the Defense Department after Mattis resigned in protest to Trump's policies and left the job at the end of the year.

The U.S. military turned its attention largely to Iraq in 2003, and eventually the Taliban were able to regenerate enough combat power to contest key battlefields, mainly in the south.

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.

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.

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.

Reuters meanwhile reported that 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. Some U.S. forces also carry out counter-terrorism operations.

The US envoy has in recent months met several times with Taliban officials in Qatar, where the group's leaders have an office in the capital Doha.

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

US officials have told Reuters that while no formal orders have been sent, the military is preparing for what a withdrawal of about half of the USA troops in Afghanistan would look like.

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.

Most recently, a Taliban official said no timetable had been agreed with the USA government for the partial withdrawal of USA forces.



Other news