KABUL (Reuters) – The United States is seeing signs of interest from elements of Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency over talks with Kabul to end the war of more than 16 years, the US defense secretary said on Tuesday. , Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.
Mattis offered few details on the Taliban's reach and it was not clear if the latter The prospects for reconciliation would prove more fruitful than the previous frustrated attempts to move towards a negotiated end to the longest war in the United States.
Taliban fighters still control much of the country and any new advance on the battlefield by Afghan forces backed by the United States and the United States can not promise to overcome the huge political divisions and entrenched corruption in Afghanistan.
"We have had some Taliban groups, small groups, who have started to approach or have expressed interest in talking," Mattis told reporters traveling with him.
Mattis' comments came during a trip to Afghanistan that is expected to precede a sharp increase in fighting after US President Donald Trump approved a more aggressive strategy against insurgents last year that included more combat advisors and US air strikes UU
That reversed the trend of withdrawals scheduled under his predecessor, Barack Obama, and set the stage for open conflict.
Trump has also built up pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militia shelters on its side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Mattis noted some positive indications of Islamabad, including Pakistani military operations along the border.
Trump has not hidden his anger against Pakistan or his pessimism over the Taliban peace talks, declaring on January 29 after a series of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan: "I do not see any conversation taking place."
But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered precondition talks with the Taliban insurgents last month, in what US officials considered a major overture from Kabul.
Ghani, introducing Mattis at his presidential palace in Kabul, described the new strategy of EE. UU As an element of change, allowing Kabul to extend its offer of peace to the Taliban without doing so from a position of weakness.
Experts in Afghanistan have long been concerned that a hasty exit from the US UU May mark the defeat of the Afghan army.
"It has been a game changer because it has forced each actor to re-examine his assumptions" said Ghani. .
Western diplomats and officials in Kabul say that contacts with intermediaries have been ongoing with the aim of agreeing on basic rules and possible 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 this week, have not given any public signal to accept Ghani's offer, instead of issuing several statements suggesting they intended to keep fighting.
U.S. Army Brigadier-General Michael Fenzel, a senior coalition official, said he interpreted the silence of the Taliban as a positive sign that the Taliban were considering Ghani's offer.
"I also wonder if they are telling themselves that maybe this is the best negotiating position we will have," Fenzel said.
Mattis emphasized that the military campaign was aimed at leading the insurgents towards political reconciliation, rather than absolute defeat on the battlefield.
"It may not be that the entire Taliban comes forward in one fell swoop – that may be too unexpected a bridge," Mattis said.
"But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government."
Uzbekistan will organize an Afghan peace conference this month, where participants are expected to convene direct talks between the militant group and the Ghani government.
However, the Taliban are likely to miss that conference and have ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which they say is an illegitimate regime imposed by foreigners.
They have offered to speak directly with the United States about a possible peace agreement.
When asked if the United States would be willing to speak directly with the Taliban, Mattis reiterated the US position. UU That the talks should be led by Kabul.
"We want Afghans to lead and provide the essence of the reconciliation effort," said Mattis.
Additional reporting by James Mackenzie; Edition of Paul Tait and James Dalgleish