U.S. notes Taliban 'interest' in peace talks

13 March, 2018, 12:32 | Author: Wade Massey
  • THE CANADIAN PRESS  Tara Brautigam

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"There is interest that we've picked up from the Taliban side", Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul, saying the signs dated back several months.

Mattis flew into the war-torn city two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani unveiled a plan to open peace talks with the Taliban.

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

"We've had some groups of Taliban - small groups - who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking", Mattis said. That may be a bridge too far to expect.

"The Afghan forces have warned the Taliban either to surrender or die on the battle field", said Bakhtawer.

But the Taliban has so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government, which they say is illegitimate.

On February 28, Afghan President Ghani offered to allow the Taliban to establish itself as a political party and said he would work to remove sanctions on the militant group, among other incentives, if it joined the government in peace negotiations.

The United States previous 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.

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.

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The insurgent group has said it was prepared to negotiate, but only with the USA and not with the Kabul government.

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

"Right now the district headquarters and the area around it are under control of the Afghan security forces", Rahimi said, adding that "fighting is ongoing in three different parts of the district" as Afghan forces pursue the Taliban.

While the United States has been stepping up battlefield pressure, Afghanistan's worldwide partners have sought to build diplomatic support from neighbouring countries to push the militants to the negotiating table.

In August a year ago, 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.

Mattis also said he had seen some changes in Pakistan's behaviour since Trump blasted the country past year for harbouring the Taliban.

Mattis said he would be meeting with President Ashraf Ghani and top US commanders.

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


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