Elements in Taliban open to peace talks: Mattis

Mattis In Surprise Kabul Visit Says Sees Some Taliban Interest In Peace Talks

Mattis told reporters that he thinks victory is still possible - defined as a political settlement with the Taliban.

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.

US President Donald Trump's administration has also piled pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militant safe havens on its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Mattis offered few details about the Taliban outreach and it was unclear whether the latest reconciliation prospects would prove any more fruitful than previous, frustrated attempts to move toward a negotiated end to America's longest war.

"We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan", he said, adding, "Not a military victory - the victory will be a political reconciliation" with the Taliban.

Taliban fighters still control large parts of the country and any new battlefield gains by US and USA -backed Afghan forces can not promise to overcome Afghanistan's yawning political divisions and entrenched corruption.

Last month President Ghani, hosting an global conference in Kabul, offered the Taliban a ceasefire and political recognition to come to the peace table without preconditions.

In a bid to break the stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table, the United States has stepped up assistance to the Afghan military, sent more troops over and increased air strikes.

The war in Afghanistan has been running since a US-led invasion in 2001 toppled the then-ruling Taliban, which Washingon accused of colluding with terrorist group al-Qaida and harboring its leader Osama bin Laden, who was wanted over the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani recently offered a comprehensive peace deal to the Taliban.

The secretary's visit comes shortly after the Afghan government said it would be willing to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party as part of a ceasefire with the militant group.

"I want to talk to people here and see the reality of how they see it, and go back and talk to our intelligence agencies to get a full assessment of where we're at", he said.

However, Taliban fighters control large parts of the country, the Kabul government itself is deeply divided and thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians are killed every year.

They have offered to talk directly to the United States about a possible peace agreement.

Mattis acknowledged that efforts to reconcile with the entire Taliban have been hard.

Mattis said he's seen initial indications that there have been changes in Pakistan's behavior but that he wants to use the trip to find out more.

Reconciliation, Mattis said, was "almost an equal priority of my interest going in".

He also says Pakistan is changing its behavior after President Trump blasted the country for harboring terrorists a year ago. These and other moves boosted the number of USA troops in Afghanistan by at least 3,500, to a total of more than 14,000.

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