The United States has seen signs that some elements of the Taliban are interested in talking about ending the 16-year war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: First Gitmo transfer under Trump could happen ‘soon’ | White House says Trump has confidence in VA chief | Russia concedes ‘dozens’ of civilians injured in Syria clashPentagon: First Gitmo transfer under Trump could happen ‘soon’Russia concedes ‘dozens’ of citizens injured in clash with US forces in SyriaMORE said Tuesday.
“There is interest that we’ve picked up from the Taliban side even going before the Kabul conference,” Mattis said, referring to an international conference last month in which Afghanistan’s president offered the Taliban talks without preconditions.
“We’ve had some groups of Taliban, small groups, who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking,” he added later.
Mattis was speaking to reporters before landing in Kabul for an unannounced visit there during an international trip.
In a sign of Afghanistan’s precarious security situation, reporters traveling with Mattis were, for the first time, not allowed to publish stories until after his party left the Kabul airport, according to The Associated Press. When Mattis visited Afghanistan in September, the airport was attacked hours after his arrival.
Since President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truthWoman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by RussiansShulkin says he has White House approval to root out ‘subversion’ at VAMORE announced a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan over the summer, the United States has sent thousands more troops there and bulked up its airpower.
At the top of a meeting with Mattis on Tuesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the new strategy a “game-changer.”
“It has been a game-changer because it has forced every actor to re-examine their assumptions,” he said.
Speaking to reporters on the plane, Mattis reiterated that the United States defines victory in Afghanistan as political reconciliation, not a military victory.
Mattis said the goal is to take advantage of fracturing among the Taliban and peel off those who are tired of fighting.
But, he added, it may be a “bridge too far” for the entire Taliban to reconcile with the government.
“In other words, it may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop,” he said. “That may be a bridge too far to expect. But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government. And so we’re going to encourage that.”
The Taliban has said it will talk to the United States, but not the Western-backed Afghan government the insurgents see as illegitimate. Mattis, though, said that “right now, we want to go by, with and through the Afghan-led process.”
Another major element of Trump’s strategy has been to pressure Pakistan to do more to fight terrorists within its borders that come over through Afghanistan. The Trump administration has cut off aid to Pakistan as part of the pressure.
Mattis said he’s seen initial indications that there have been changes in Pakistan’s behavior but that he wants to use the trip to find out more.
“I want to talk to people here and see the reality of how they see it, and go back and talk to our intelligence agencies to get a full assessment of where we’re at,” he said.