Afghanistan: on surprise visit, Mattis sees 'Taliban interest' in peace talks

Indonesia Ulema Council chief Muhyiddin Junaidi right with an MUI official Amirsyah Tambunan

The insurgents have so far given no formal response to Kabul's offer for negotiations, but Mattis said some insurgent leaders have expressed an interest in the discussions.

Before landing in the Afghan capital, Mattis told reporters that the United States was picking up signs of interest from groups of Taliban fighters in exploring the possibility of talks to end the violence, adding that the signs date back several months.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has arrived in Kabul for an unannounced visit to take stock of the war and the prospects of drawing some elements of the Taliban into peace talks with the Afghan government, RFE/RL reports.

Mattis said the jump in attacks on civilians was an indication that a pressured Taliban is unable to conduct broader, ground-taking operations.

"In other words, it may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop".

The Taliban urged Washington last month to begin talks to end nearly 17 years of war in Afghanistan, which suggests they want to explore dialogue.

The Taliban, Afghanistan's biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks in January alone, the Washington-based terrorism research group TRAC said - an astonishing number given that the traditional fighting season does not usually start until freezing temperatures have subsided in the spring.

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The United States has stepped up assistance to the Afghan military and greatly increased air strikes against the Taliban as part of its new regional strategy announced a year ago, in a bid to break the stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table.

"The Anardara district headquarters is under the insurgents' control and right now, an intense battle is going on all around the district center and government offices", said Bakhtawer.

"We want the Afghans to lead and provide the substance to the reconciliation effort", he said.

Previous peace offers to the militants were refused.

Asked whether the United States would be willing to talk directly with the Taliban, Mattis reiterated the USA position that the talks should be led by Kabul.

In August past year, US President Donald Trump asserted that his administration would take a more aggressive approach to deal with the Afghan conflict and to pull out US troops from Afghanistan.

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