Mattis in Surprise Afghanistan Trip: Taliban Interested in Talks with Kabul

Mattis in Surprise Afghanistan Trip: Taliban Interested in Talks with Kabul

Tuesday, 13 March, 2018 - 09:00
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. (AP)
Asharq Al-Awsat
US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday where he said that some Taliban elements were interested in holding talks with Kabul.

“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.

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

“We’ve had some groups of Taliban - small groups - who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking,” Mattis said.

He added that some of his indications, which he did not detail, dated back before Ghani’s remarks.

“In other words, it may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop,” he stated.

Mattis, a retired Marine general who commanded US troops in southern Afghanistan in the opening weeks of the war in 2001, said getting the Taliban to reconcile en masse may be "a bridge too far." So the emphasis is on drawing in Taliban elements piecemeal.

The United States has in the past also expressed hope of “peeling off” elements of the Taliban and it was unclear how this new effort might be different.

Western diplomats and officials in Kabul say contacts involving intermediaries have been underway with the aim of agreeing on ground rules and potential areas of discussion for possible talks with at least some elements in the Taliban.

However, the insurgents, who seized a district center in western Afghanistan earlier this week, have given no public sign of accepting Ghani’s offer, instead issuing several statements suggesting they intended to keep fighting.

The United States has stepped up assistance to the Afghan military and greatly increased air strikes against the Taliban as part of its new regional strategy announced last year, in a bid to break the stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table.

Mattis said the goal was to convince the Taliban insurgents that they could not win, which would hopefully push them towards reconciliation.

However, Taliban fighters control large parts of the country, the Kabul government itself is deeply divided and thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians are killed every year.

Uzbekistan is set to host an Afghan peace conference later this month, where participants are expected to call for direct talks between the militant group and Ghani’s government.

However, the Taliban appears likely to miss that conference and have so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which they say is an illegitimate, foreign-imposed regime.

They have offered to talk directly to the United States about a possible peace agreement.

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

“We want the Afghans to lead and provide the substance to the reconciliation effort,” Mattis said.

"We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan," he said, adding, "Not a military victory — the victory will be a political reconciliation" with the Taliban.

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. At that point, he said, Afghanistan would not be "a haven for attacks internationally" as it was when al-Qaida used the country as a launching pad for the attacks of September 11, 2001.

While the United States has been stepping up battlefield pressure, Afghanistan’s international partners have sought to build diplomatic support from neighboring countries to push the militants to the negotiating table.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has also piled pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militant safe havens on its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Mattis said he had seen some positive indications from Islamabad, noting some Pakistani military operations along the border.

Outlining his goals for the trip, Mattis said he wanted to get an assessment of both the re-tooled US war effort as well as the reconciliation efforts.

Reconciliation, Mattis said, was “almost an equal priority of my interest going in.”

US intelligence officials are predicting the war will remain stalemated as the traditionally most intensive fighting season begins this spring.

As part of an effort to bolster Afghan fighting strength, the US in recent weeks sent an Army group of about 800 soldiers, accompanied by several hundred support troops, to advise the Afghans closer to the front lines. The US also shifted A-10 attack planes and other aircraft from striking ISIS in Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan as part of Trump's new approach.

These and other moves boosted the number of US troops in Afghanistan by at least 3,500 to a total of more than 14,000.

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