Mat­tis pins Afghan hopes on talks

Tal­iban rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, not fight­ing, is path for­ward, he says

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - ROBERT BURNS

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis said Tues­day that he be­lieves vic­tory in Afghanistan is still pos­si­ble — not nec­es­sar­ily on the bat­tle­field but in fa­cil­i­tat­ing a Tal­iban rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the Afghan gov­ern­ment.

Mat­tis spoke shortly be­fore ar­riv­ing in Kabul, where se­cu­rity con­cerns were so high that re­porters trav­el­ing with him were not al­lowed to pub­lish sto­ries un­til his party had moved from the Kabul air­port to the U.S.-led mil­i­tary coali­tion’s head­quar­ters. That was the first such re­stric­tion on cov­er­age of a Pen­tagon chief’s visit in mem­ory.

Mat­tis said he would be meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani and top U.S. com­man­ders.

“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, which has achieved a stale­mate in re­cent years and shown lit­tle in­ter­est in con­ced­ing to the Kabul gov­ern­ment.

Mat­tis, a re­tired Marine gen­eral who com­manded U.S. troops in south­ern Afghanistan in the open­ing weeks of the war in 2001, said get­ting the Tal­iban to rec­on­cile en masse may be “a bridge too far.” So the em­pha­sis is on draw­ing in Tal­iban el­e­ments piece­meal.

He de­scribed this ap­proach as an ef­fort to “start peel­ing off those who are tired of fight­ing,” af­ter more than 16 years of war.

“We know there is in­ter­est on the Tal­iban side,” he said.

He de­fined vic­tory in Afghanistan as a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment be­tween the Tal­iban and the gov­ern­ment, and an Afghan mil­i­tary that is ca­pa­ble of se­cur­ing the coun­try largely on its own. At that point, he said, Afghanistan would not be “a haven for at­tacks in­ter­na­tion­ally” as it was when al-Qaida used the coun­try as a launch­ing pad for the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks on the U.S.

Ghani opened his meet­ing with Mat­tis at the Pres­i­den­tial Palace by ex­press­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the U.S. mil­i­tary’s sac­ri­fices over the years and of­fer­ing praise for the new war strat­egy ap­proved in Au­gust by U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Ghani called the new U.S. ap­proach a “game changer.”

“It has forced ev­ery ac­tor to re-ex­am­ine their as­sump­tions,” he said, adding that in the short run this could in­ten­sify the con­flict. On the pos­i­tive side, he said, it en­ables his gov­ern­ment to make an un­con­di­tional peace of­fer to the Tal­iban with­out it look­ing like a sur­ren­der.

He said it also al­lowed his gov­ern­ment to ap­proach Pak­istan with an of­fer of a “com­pre­hen­sive di­a­logue.”

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

The visit is Mat­tis’ sec­ond since Trump an­nounced in Au­gust that, de­spite his in­stinct to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, his ad­min­is­tra­tion would take a more ag­gres­sive ap­proach to the con­flict, now in its 17th year.

As part of an ef­fort to bol­ster Afghan fight­ing strength, the U.S. in re­cent weeks sent an Army group of about 800 sol­diers, ac­com­pa­nied by sev­eral hun­dred sup­port troops, to ad­vise the Afghans closer to the front lines. The U.S. also shifted A-10 at­tack planes and other air­craft from strik­ing Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan as part of Trump’s new ap­proach. These and other moves boosted the num­ber of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by at least 3,500 to a to­tal of more than 14,000.

Mat­tis has said the U.S. goal is to en­able Afghan forces to weaken the Tal­iban to the point where the Afghans can man­age their own se­cu­rity. Put an­other way, the aim is to con­vince the in­sur­gents that they can­not win on the bat­tle­field, thus driv­ing them to rec­on­cile with the Afghan gov­ern­ment.

Stephen Bid­dle, a Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor and long­time ob­server of the Afghan con­flict, said he is skep­ti­cal that the new U.S. strat­egy will make a de­ci­sive dif­fer­ence mil­i­tar­ily, al­though he sees “glim­mers of hope” for progress to­ward a peace set­tle­ment.

He noted that both the Tal­iban and Ghani have spo­ken re­cently of push­ing for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. In late Fe­bru­ary, Ghani called on the Tal­iban to take part in peace talks to “save the coun­try,” of­fer­ing se­cu­rity and in­cen­tives such as pass­ports to in­sur­gents who are will­ing to join the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Alice Wells, the State De­part­ment’s top of­fi­cial for South and Cen­tral Asian Af­fairs, said Fri­day at the United States In­sti­tute for Peace that Ghani’s ap­proach is more ac­com­mo­dat­ing to­ward the Tal­iban than pre­vi­ous over­tures by Kabul and de­serves a thought­ful re­sponse from the Tal­iban.

Trump, how­ever, said Jan. 29 that he sees no ba­sis for peace talks as long as the Tal­iban are “killing peo­ple left and right.”

The Tal­iban stance is that talks for a con­flict-end­ing com­pro­mise must take place with Wash­ing­ton, not Kabul.


U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis ar­rives Tues­day in Kabul, Afghanistan. He said he be­lieves vic­tory in Afghanistan is a mat­ter of deal­ing with Tal­iban mem­bers who are tired of fight­ing.

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