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.

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