Mattis in Surprise Afghanistan Trip: Taliban Interested in Talks with Kabul

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis lands in Kabul on Tuesday

Mattis In Surprise Kabul Visit Says Sees Some Taliban Interest In Peace Talks

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, March 13, 2018.

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.

"We've had some groups of Taliban - small groups - who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking", Mattis told reporters traveling with him.

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.

Mattis offered few details about the Taliban outreach and it was unclear whether the latest reconciliation prospects would prove any more fruitful than previous, frustrated attempts to move toward a negotiated end to America's longest war.

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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.

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". Elements of the Taliban are open to talks with the Afghan government, Mattis said. "It may not be that the whole Taleban comes over in one fell swoop - that would be a bridge too far - but there are elements of the Taleban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government".

However, Mattis says a diplomatic solution must be between Kabul and the Taliban. A political reconciliation, not a military victory.

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

It marks Mattis' third visit to the country, where about 11,000 US troops are stationed.

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As part of an effort to bolster Afghan fighting strength, the recent weeks sent an Army group of about 800 soldiers, accompanied by several hundred support troops, to advise the Afghans closer to the front lines.

As part of its new strategy for Afghanistan, the United States has boosted the number of USA troops in Afghanistan by at least 3,500, to a total of more than 14,000, and stepped up air strikes in the country.

These and other moves boosted the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by at least 3,500 to a total of more than 14,000. 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.

He said, "Of course it's all working to achieve a reconciliation". Ghani's peace plan includes eventually recognizing the Taliban as a political party.

"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.

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