KABUL (TCA) — U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has arrived in Kabul for an unannounced visit to take stock of the war and the prospects of drawing some elements of the Taliban into peace talks with the Afghan government, RFE/RL reports.
The March 13 visit, which was not announced in advance due to security concerns, comes as the United States is putting new resources into the more than 16-year-old war.
Before landing in the Afghan capital, Mattis told reporters that the United States was picking up signs of interest from groups of Taliban fighters in exploring the possibility of talks to end the violence, adding that the signs date back several months.
“There is interest that we’ve picked up from the Taliban side,” Mattis said. “We’ve had some groups of Taliban — small groups — who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking.”
On February 28, Afghan President 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.
In return, the militants would have to recognize the Kabul government and respect the rule of law.
But the Taliban has so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government, which they say is illegitimate.
The group has insisted it would only negotiate with the United States, which it calls a “foreign occupying force.” The Taliban also says that NATO forces must withdraw before negotiations can begin.
Asked whether the United States would be willing to directly talk with the Taliban, Mattis reiterated the U.S. position that the talks should be led by Kabul.
“We want the Afghans to lead and provide the substance to the reconciliation effort,” he said.
The Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks in 2015, but they broke down almost immediately.
Mattis told reporters that the goal is to convince the Taliban militants that they cannot win, which would hopefully push them toward reconciliation.
“We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan,” he said. “Not a military victory — the victory will be a political reconciliation.”