In Afghanistan, Mattis says some in Taliban may be willing to pursue peace
Unannounced visit comes after Afghan president’s offer of talks
kabul — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with senior U.S. and Afghan officials in Afghanistan on Tuesday to discuss both the military campaign and “peeling off ” some members of the Taliban to pursue a peace deal with the Afghan government.
Mattis’s unannounced visit comes two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made what many observers consider an unprecedented offer, inviting the Taliban to begin peace talks without preconditions to end the 16-year war.
The Taliban said last month that it is open to reaching a political settlement and negotiating, but it has not responded to Ghani’s offer.
Mattis, speaking on a flight to Afghanistan from Oman, said Tuesday that talking about a peace settlement is “not cart before the horse” and that it is backed by the ongoing efforts of the U.S. and Afghan militaries. Some members of the Taliban may be willing to pursue peace, especially considering the group has fractured over the past few years, he said.
“All wars come to an end,” Mattis said. “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 acknowledged that efforts to reconcile with the entire Taliban have been difficult. The effort right now, he said, is to reach “those who are tired of fighting” and build it out from there.
The defense secretary and his staff arrived at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on a C-17 jet in the morning before being whisked away on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in damp, chilly weather to the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul. He met immediately with senior officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass and Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan. Afterward, he visited with Ghani and other senior Afghan officials at the presidential palace.
Ghani said at the palace that President Trump’s new South Asia strategy, adopted in August, allows Afghan officials to tell their people that talking about peace with the Taliban “is not tantamount to surrender or to collapse.” The strategy calls for ramping up military and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to force a negotiated settlement and does not include a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal, a notable difference from the plan under President Barack Obama.
Ghani noted that an offer of peace in the 1990s ultimately led to the collapse of the Afghan government, “and people always carry their memories.”
Mattis’s visit to the country was his second since the new strategy was unveiled. The Pentagon chief is among a small group of senior advisers who convinced Trump that it made sense to not only continue the U.S. role in the war but also bolster it with more air power and a modest increase in the number of U.S. troops from about 11,000 to 14,500.
But the Taliban remains a powerful force in Afghanistan, regularly carrying out highprofile attacks in and around Kabul in addition to holding or contesting more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s territory.