Signs that Taleban wants to end Afghanistan war: Mattis

KABUL • The United States is picking up signs of interest from the Taleban on the possibility of talks with Kabul to end their war after more than 16 years.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis, speaking yesterday while making an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, said: "There is interest that we've picked up from the Taleban side." The signs dated back several months, he said, before landing in Kabul.

General Mattis' visit to the war-torn city comes two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani unveiled a plan to open peace talks with the Taleban.

The insurgents have, so far, given no formal response to Kabul's offer of talks, but Gen Mattis said some insurgent leaders have expressed an interest in the discussions.

Speaking to reporters aboard a military jet, he said: "We've had some groups of Taleban - small groups - who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking. 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."

The US has, in the past, also expressed hope of "peeling off" elements of the Taleban, and it was unclear how this new effort might be different. Mr Ghani's peace plan includes eventually recognising the Taleban as a political party.

The insurgent group has said it is prepared to negotiate, but only with the US and not with the Kabul government. But Gen Mattis reiterated the US position, that the talks should be led by Kabul.

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

Thanks to the political process, Gen Mattis said the US is now looking towards victory in Afghanistan.

"What does that victory look like? It's a country whose own people and their own security forces handle law enforcement and any threats, certainly, with international support for some years to come," he said.

The US has a renewed focus on Afghanistan after years of drawdowns under former US president Barack Obama, and talk by top US generals of "not winning" and a "stalemate" in the seemingly intractable conflict. "It's all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory," Gen Mattis said. "The victory will be a political reconciliation."

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. Instead, they have issued several statements suggesting they intended to keep fighting.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2018, with the headline 'Signs that Taleban wants to end Afghanistan war: Mattis'. Print Edition | Subscribe