KABUL • US Defence Secretary James Mattis met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit to Kabul yesterday to discuss prospects for peace talks with the Taleban and the country's deteriorating security situation ahead of upcoming elections.
Mr Mattis was accompanied by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, who earlier in the week had gone to Islamabad with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a mission to reset testy relations with Pakistan's new government.
The United States has withheld US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) of military aid from Pakistan this year, having accused Islamabad of turning a blind eye to, or helping, Afghan Taleban and Haqqani network fighters who stage attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan denies doing so.
The US is a year into its latest attempt to step up pressure on the Taleban by increasing air strikes and sending thousands more troops to train and advise the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF).
Mr Ghani and the US officials discussed progress to end the 17-year-old war, which has become America's longest conflict.
"They discussed peace process, positive impact of the South Asia strategy, reforms in ANDSF, upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, counter-terrorism and dialogue with Pakistan," Mr Ghani's official spokesman said in a tweet.
The American officials also met US Army General Scott Miller who assumed command of Nato forces in Afghanistan on Sunday.
There is little sign of Afghanistan becoming more stable before next month's parliamentary polls and April's presidential election.
The Taleban recently killed hundreds of soldiers and police and briefly seized the strategic city of Ghazni in a high-profile assault.
Speaking with reporters prior to his arrival in Kabul, Mr Mattis said he was hopeful about peace talks with the Taleban. "Right now, we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage," Mr Mattis said.
Over the summer, a top US State Department official met Taleban officials in Qatar to try to lay the groundwork for broader peace talks.
The US has pointed to the Taleban accepting a temporary truce in June as a sign of why the talks should be viewed with hope.
"The most important work... is beginning the political process and reconciliation," Gen Dunford told reporters travelling with him. "What we are trying to do in the military dimension is convince the Taleban that they cannot win on the battlefield and that they must engage in a peace process."
But privately, US officials and experts are more cautious. A US official said it was unclear how much influence the Taleban officials in Doha, Qatar, had over the group's leadership. And Mr Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert with the Wilson Centre think-tank in Washington, said: "I think that both the US and Afghanistan have perhaps exaggerated the good news in Afghanistan."