KABUL (REUTERS) - The United States is picking up signs of interest from Taleban elements in exploring the possibility of talks with Kabul to end the more than 16-year-old war, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday (March 13), as he made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.
"There is interest that we've picked up from the Taleban side," Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul, saying the signs date back several months.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last month offered talks without preconditions with the Taleban insurgents, in what was seen by US officials as a major overture from Kabul.
Mattis said some of his indications, which he did not detail, dated back before Ghani's remarks.
"We've had some groups of Taleban - small groups - who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking," Mattis said.
"In other words, it may not be that the whole Taleban comes over in one fell swoop. That may be a bridge too far to expect. But there are elements of the Taleban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government."
The United States 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.
As part of its new regional strategy announced last year, the US has stepped up assistance to the Afghan military and greatly increased air strikes against the Taleban, in a bid to break the stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table.
Mattis said the goal was to convince the Taleban insurgents that they cannot win, which would hopefully push them toward reconciliation.
However, Taleban fighters control large parts of the country, the Kabul government itself is deeply divided and thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians are being killed every year.
Uzbekistan is set to host an Afghan peace conference later this month, where participants are expected to call for direct talks between the militant group and Ghani's government.
However, the Taleban appears likely to miss the Afghan peace conference and has so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which they say is an illegitimate, foreign-imposed regime.
They have offered to directly talk to the US about a possible peace agreement.
Asked whether the US would be willing to directly talk with the Taleban, Mattis reiterated the US position that the talks should be led by Kabul.
"We want the Afghans to lead and provide the substance to the reconciliation effort," Mattis said.
While the US has been stepping up battlefield pressure, Afghanistan's international partners have sought to build up diplomatic support from neighbouring countries to push the militants to the negotiating table.
President Donald Trump's administration has also piled pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militant safe havens on its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Mattis said he had seen some positive indications from Islamabad, noting some Pakistani military operations along the border.
Outlining his goals for the trip, Mattis said he wanted to both get an assessment of the re-tooled US war effort as well as the reconciliation efforts.
Reconciliation, Mattis said, was "almost an equal priority of my interest going in."