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Taliban 'elements' interested in talks: U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis

14 March 2018

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

"We've had some groups of Taliban, small groups, who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking", said Mattis.

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.

"There is interest that we've picked up from the Taliban side", Mattis said.

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last month offered talks without preconditions to the Taliban insurgents, who have previously said they would talk only with Washington about a possible peace agreement.

It marks Mattis' third visit to the country, where about 11,000 US troops are stationed. "But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government", he said.

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. While the Taliban expressed interest in reaching a political settlement, they have yet to respond to Ghani's offer.

"We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan", he said, adding, "Not a military victory - the victory will be a political reconciliation" with the Taliban.

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

Ghani hailed the new U.S. strategy for South Asia that allowed American soldiers more authority and resources to target militants in Afghanistan without any time restrictions unlike the previous administration under former U.S. President Barack Obama. These and other moves boosted the number of US 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. The Afghan President's initiative includes declaring an indefinite ceasefire between both parties, recognizing the Taliban as a political party, and freeing the prisoners in order to initiate a path towards a peace process that puts an end to more than 16 years of conflict.

"We want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance to the reconciliation effort", Mattis stated. The insurgent group has said it is prepared to negotiate, but only with the US and not with the Kabul government.

"We assess the overall security picture will. modestly deteriorate in the coming year and Kabul will continue to bear the brunt of the Taliban-led insurgency", Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told a Senate committee on March 6. They said that while Afghan forces are getting better, the Taliban is likely to threaten Afghan stability this year.

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Taliban 'elements' interested in talks: U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis