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

THE CANADIAN PRESS  Tara Brautigam

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says small factions of Taliban forces fighting the U.S. -backed Afghan government have expressed an interest in negotiating an end to the 16-year war.

The visit, which was not announced in advance due to security concerns, comes as the USA injects new resources into the stalemated war.

"It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop, that would be a bridge too far, but there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government", Mattis told reporters aboard a military jet.

The Taliban is likely to miss an Afghan peace conference at which participants are set to call for direct talks between the militant group and the government of President Ashraf Ghani, the foreign ministry in Uzbekistan said on Monday.

The Taliban overran a district headquarters in Afghanistan's western Farah province early on Monday, killing and wounding at least 15 members of the security forces, a provincial official said.

The United States past year stepped up its military assistance to Afghanistan, notably through a sharp increase in air strikes, with the aim of breaking a stalemate with the insurgents and forcing them to the negotiating table.

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The Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks in 2015, but they broke down nearly immediately.

Mattis said the ultimate victory in Afghanistan will be a "political reconciliation" between Kabul and the Taliban, with a country capable of handling its own security.

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

"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.

"What does that victory look like?" "Not a military victory - the victory will be a political reconciliation".

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