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Afghanistan: on surprise visit, Mattis sees 'Taliban interest' in peace talks

13 March 2018

Elements of the Taliban are open to talks with the Afghan government, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday as he arrived in Kabul on an unannounced visit.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis addresses a news conference during a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 15, 2018.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani recently offered a comprehensive peace deal to the Taliban, but the militants have not responded and have increased their attacks.

The group has insisted it would only negotiate with the United States, which it calls a "foreign occupying force".

Previous peace offers to the militants were refused.

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"It has been a game changer because it has forced every actor to re-examine their assumptions", Ghani said.

"Right now the district headquarters and the area around it are under control of the Afghan security forces", Rahimi said, adding that "fighting is ongoing in three different parts of the district" as Afghan forces pursue the Taliban.

He said the positive signals had come from small numbers of insurgents. That may be a bridge too far to expect.

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. So the emphasis is on drawing in Taliban elements piecemeal.

But the Taliban has so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government, which they say is illegitimate.

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However, the insurgents, who seized a district centre in western Afghanistan this week, have given no public sign of accepting Ghani's offer, instead issuing several statements suggesting they meant to keep fighting. These and other moves boosted the number of USA troops in Afghanistan by at least 3,500 to a total of more than 14,000.

In August previous year, US President Donald Trump asserted that his administration would take a more aggressive approach to deal with the Afghan conflict and to pull out US troops from Afghanistan.

Mattis said he had seen some positive indications from Islamabad, noting some Pakistani military operations along the border. Put another way, the aim is to convince the insurgents they can not win on the battlefield, thus driving them to reconcile with the Afghan government.

The Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks in 2015, but they broke down nearly immediately.

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Afghanistan: on surprise visit, Mattis sees 'Taliban interest' in peace talks