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Defense Secretary Mattis in Kabul, Says Elements of Taliban Open to Talks

14 March 2018

On Feb. 28, 2018, Ghani offered to allow the Taliban to establish itself as a political party and said he would work to remove sanctions on the militant group, among other incentives, if it joined the government in peace negotiations.

Mattis comments came during a trip to Afghanistan that is expected to precede a sharp increase in fighting after U.S. President Donald Trump approved a more aggressive strategy against the insurgents previous year that included more U.S. combat advisors and air strikes.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered talks without preconditions with the Taliban insurgents last month, in what was seen by USA officials as a major overture from Kabul.

The United States has stepped up assistance to the Afghan military and greatly increased air strikes against the Taliban as part of a regional strategy announced a year ago.

"We want the Afghans to lead and provide the substance to the reconciliation effort", he said.

Asked whether the United States would be willing to directly talk with the Taliban, Mattis reiterated the USA position that the talks should be led by Kabul.

The insurgents have, so far, given no formal response to Kabul's offer of talks, but Gen Mattis said some insurgent leaders have expressed an interest in the discussions. USA is keeping almost 14,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, after 3,000 arrived to reinforce the existing troops. He noted that both the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have spoken recently of pushing for reconciliation.

"It's all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory", Mattis said.

"There is interest that we've picked up from the Taliban side", Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul, saying the signs dated back several months.

The Taliban stance is that talks for a conflict-ending compromise must take place with Washington, not Kabul. The insurgent group has said it is prepared to negotiate, but only with the USA and not with the Kabul government. Pakistan, Iran and Russian Federation are thought to maintain ties to militant proxies inside Afghanistan in case the war-ravaged country collapses. At the same time, it has become harder to gauge such progress because the American-led military coalition has stopped releasing information such as the size of the Afghan army and rates of attrition in its ranks.

He said the positive signals had come from small numbers of insurgents.

He defined victory in Afghanistan as a political settlement between the Taliban and the government, and an Afghan military that is capable of securing the country largely on its own. Afghan forces, while "unsteady", probably will maintain control of most major population centers in 2018, he added. They said that while Afghan forces are getting better, the Taliban is likely to threaten Afghan stability this year.

The Taliban now controls its largest swath of territory in the county since 2015.

Defense Secretary Mattis in Kabul, Says Elements of Taliban Open to Talks