Taliban 'elements' interested in talks: United States defense secretary Jim Mattis


The United States is picking up signs of interest from Taliban elements in exploring the possibility of talks with Kabul to end the more than 16-year-old war, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday.

The Taliban, Afghanistan's biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks in January alone, the Washington-based terrorism research group TRAC said - an astonishing number given that the traditional fighting season does not usually start until freezing temperatures have subsided in the spring.

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.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani described the new US strategy allowing Kabul to extend its peace offer to the Taliban as a game changer.

Ghani proposed talks with no preconditions with the Taliban last month, in what the Reuters news agency says "was seen by USA officials as a major overture from Kabul".

He said there were "elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking with the Afghan government", while admitting that not all the rebels would be prepared to do so.

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 centre in western Afghanistan earlier this week have given no public signs of accepting Mr Ghani's offer.

The Pentagon chief defined the final goal of the conflict as political reconciliation between the warring parties rather than a military victory. "In other words it may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop".

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

Mattis' trip to Afghanistan included a new security precaution where his arrival wasn't to be announced until he arrived at the airport and made his way to the USA military headquarters in Kabul.

He also says Pakistan is changing its behavior after President Trump blasted the country for harboring terrorists previous year. More than 3,000 additional USA forces have also arrived in Afghanistan to boost the training and advising of local troops.

Ghani's peace plan includes eventually recognising the Taliban as a political party.

"It's all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory", Gen Mattis said.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Michael Fenzel, a top coalition official, said he interpreted the Taliban's silence as a positive signal that the Taliban were considering Ghani's offer. The Afghan security forces were able to stop some attacks, Mattis said, though he noted he wanted to see them shift to a more "offensive mindset" in the coming months.

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