UPDATED 7:58 AM PT — Tues. March 13, 2018
The U.S. Defense chief says the Taliban is coming closer to taking part in peace talks.
Defense Secretary James Mattis made the comments while traveling for a surprise visit to Afghanistan Tuesday.
According to Mattis, the U.S. is picking up signs that certain elements within the insurgency are ready to take steps to end the 16-year war.
“We’ve had some groups of Taliban, small groups, who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking,” said Mattis. “In other words it may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop.”
He also says Pakistan is changing its behavior after President Trump blasted the country for harboring terrorists last year.
The Taliban currently controls its largest swath of territory in the county since 2015.
Two weeks ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered direct talks with the Taliban with no preconditions.
Since then, the Taliban has called the government an illegitimate puppet of foreign powers, and demanded to negotiate a peace agreement with the United States instead.
However, Mattis says a diplomatic solution must be between Kabul and the Taliban.
“We want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance to the reconciliation effort,” Mattis stated.
There are currently 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which is up from the 8,500 around the time President Obama left office.
Since last year, U.S. forces have increased strikes on Taliban targets, and provided additional assistance to Afghanistan’s military.
Thousands of Afghan troops and civilians are killed in the war every year.
Mattis says the uptick in Taliban attacks on civilians show the insurgency cannot gain more territory.
For him, the goal is to show the Taliban it will not have victory in the battlefield, and the group must come to the negotiation table.
“It’s all working to achieve a reconciliation. A political reconciliation, not a military victory. The victory will be a political reconciliation.” — Defense Secretary James Mattis