KABUL, Afghanistan — At an extraordinary moment in Pentagon history, a former business executive with little political stature and without military experience is making his international debut as the acting U.S. secretary of defense.
After conferring Monday with Afghan leaders and American military commanders and diplomats in Kabul, Pat Shanahan was scheduled to attend a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels and an international security conference in Munich, Germany. It was Shanahan’s first-ever visit to Afghanistan, where American troops have been at war for 17 years and the Trump administration is pushing for a peace deal with the Taliban.
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. The retired Marine general quit in late December in protest of Trump’s policies.
In his resignation letter, Mattis offered to stay on until after this week’s NATO meeting to ensure that the Pentagon’s interests were “properly articulated and protected.” But three days after Mattis gave Trump that letter, the president on Dec. 23 told Mattis to leave the Cabinet on Dec. 31. This unusually sudden transition came at sensitive junctures in Syria, where Trump has ordered a U.S. troop withdrawal, and Afghanistan, where a potential troop pullout looms amid continued Taliban violence.
The status of U.S. forces in Iraq also has been put in question as Iraqi leaders responded with anger to Trump’s statement in early February that he would keep American troops in Iraq in order to watch neighboring Iran.