Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Tuesday the U.S. is interested in “peeling off” Taliban elements who are interested in a peace deal, emphasizing political reconciliation even as both sides prepare for the upcoming spring fighting season.
Speaking on a flight to Afghanistan from Oman, Mattis said it is not too early to consider peace negotiations with the Taliban, a move that is the ultimate goal of the joint U.S. and Afghan military campaign in the country.
“All wars come to an end,” Mattis said, according to the Washington Post. “You don’t want to miss an opportunity because you weren’t alert to the opportunity. So, you need to have that door open, even if you embrace the military pressure.”
Mattis’ surprise stop in Kabul comes two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a significant peace overture to the Taliban, inviting the group’ leaders to begin negotiations without preconditions. The Taliban itself has said it would consider peace talks, but has not responded to Ghani’s offer.
Reaching out to elements of the Taliban that are tired of fighting is critical to bringing more than 16 years of fighting to an end, Mattis told reporters.
“We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan,” Mattis said, according to The Associated Press. “Not a military victory — the victory will be a political reconciliation” with the Taliban.
Mattis met with senior U.S. officials, including Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass and Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, during his Kabul stop. He also visited with Ghani and other senior Afghan officials at the Presidential Palace, reports WaPo.
It was the second time Mattis has traveled to Afghanistan since President Donald Trump announced his new South Asia strategy in August. The plan calls for additional troop deployments, along with diplomatic pressure, to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. It does not include a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, a notable difference from the Obama administration’s approach.
Mattis was a key supporter of the strategy within the Trump administration and helped convince the president to move away from his initial instinct to pull out of Afghanistan. Instead, Trump ordered a modest troop increase — from about 11,000 to 14,500 — and has dramatically increased the number of air strikes against the Taliban and other Islamic militants in Afghanistan.
The strategy has yet to make a dent in a stubborn Taliban insurgency that not only retains the ability to attack Kabul, but likely controls more territory now than it did at the same time last year.
As of October, the Afghan central government had control or influence in 56 percent of its 507 districts, while insurgents controlled 14 percent and another 30 percent were contested. That was worse than in 2016, when the government controlled 72 percent of the districts, with 7 percent under insurgent control and 21 percent contested, according to WaPo.
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