Acting US Defense Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

Afghan president offers Taliban local office, but group wants Doha instead

US special envoy resumes Afghan peace diplomacy

Since being appointed last September as the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad has carried out a number of rounds of talks with the Taliban and other regional representatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, India, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Taliban spokesman Sohail Shahin later told Reuters that the focus was global recognition of their existing site in Doha, Qatar.

The former USA ambassador to Kabul also called for direct talks to begin as soon as possible between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which thus far has not been involved in Khalilzad's talks.

Those talks have provided a glimmer of hope of an end to the war. The trip, which began on Sunday, will continue till Feb 28, when the chief U.S. negotiator is expected back in Washington for consultations.

The State Department said the trip "is part of an overall effort to facilitate a peace process that protects USA national security interests and brings all Afghan parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue through which they can determine a path for their country's future". Ambassador Khalilzad will meet "our allies and partners to discuss mutual efforts to advance that goal and will consult with the Afghan government throughout the trip", the statement added.

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.

Explaining the Taliban position on refusing to talk to the government in Kabul, Mr. Mujahid said that any talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani regime would have symbolic ramifications.

"Our demand about having an official political office is clear, we want that our office in Doha is recognized by the global community and the United Nations", Shahin 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. "The nation says that they did not go to Makkah but they went to Moscow and they want to know why", he added. He is seeking re-election in July.

Afghan forces, according to the security officials, would continue to keep on pressure on anti-government militants in the chilly winter to reduce the military capabilities of the militant groups before spring which is known as fighting season in Afghanistan. The Taliban want all American troops to withdraw.

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