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USA notes Taliban 'interest' in peace talks

13 March 2018

U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Kabul in an unannounced visit, Tom Gresback, the spokesman of U.S. and NATO's Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, told newsmen.

The defence secretary, who commanded U.S. troops as a Marine general in southern Afghanistan during the war with the Taliban in 2001, said that getting the militants on board for reconciliation may be a bridge too far.

Mattis said some of his indications, which he did not detail, dated back before Ghani's remarks. Ghani in February offered recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group as part of a proposed process he said could lead to talks.

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.

The United States a year ago stepped up its military assistance to Afghanistan, notably through a sharp increase in air strikes, with the aim of breaking a stalemate with the insurgents and forcing them to the negotiating table.

The insurgent group has said it was prepared to negotiate, but only with the United States and not with the Kabul government.

The Taliban urged Washington last month to begin talks to end nearly 17 years of war in Afghanistan, which suggests they want to explore dialogue.

Ghani's offer of peace talks comes as civilian casualties have soared in recent months, with the Taliban increasingly targeting towns and cities in response to Trump's new and more aggressive military policy.

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.

"Right now we want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance of the reconciliation effort", Mattis said.

As part of the so-called South Asia Strategy, President Donald Trump past year ordered the increased bombing of Taliban targets - including drug-making labs and training camps.

Mattis also said he had seen some changes in Pakistan's behaviour since Trump blasted the country a year ago for harbouring the Taliban.

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.

USA notes Taliban 'interest' in peace talks