The US Defense Secretary James Mattis arrived in Kabul Tuesday morning in a surprise visit that the Resolute Support spokesman called a regular trip with no special agenda.
Tom Gresback, the NATO spokesman in Kabul, said; “He comes to Afghanistan more than a couple of times a year so it’s a regularly scheduled visit.”
Mattis visits Afghanistan at a time when pressure has mounted on the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiation table. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a conference late last month called the Kabul Process, involving representatives of 25 countries along with the United States and NATO, rolled out his plan for peace negotiations with the Taliban. He offered them political recognition, help in removing their names from international sanctions lists, passports, jobs, and a political office in Kabul if they renounce violence and come to the table.
The Taliban have not yet officially responded to that offer.
Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah yesterday told a bi-weekly meeting attended by the ministers and their deputies that the government has not received a positive response from the militant group.
The Taliban have also not yet applied to attend an end of March meeting in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, the Uzbek foreign ministry said according to Reuters. Participants in the meeting are expected to put their weight behind calls for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The Taliban have said they will only talk to the United States and not what they call its puppet regime in Kabul.
But before landing in Kabul Tuesday, Mattis told reporters there were signs the Taliban were interested in negotiations. Although he acknowledged that these were small groups, not the main Taliban faction led by Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada.
“It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop. That may be a bridge too far to expect. But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government,” he said.
Last year, Ghani managed to bring former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyaar and his group the Hizb i Islami off the battlefield through successful peace negotiations. Critics say by the time Hekmatyaar negotiated a deal, he was already a spent force. Still, Ghani hopes other small groups will follow suit, weakening the main Taliban faction and forcing it to rethink its strategy.
Mattis, who is expected to meet NATO and Afghan leadership, arrived a day after the Taliban briefly overran a western Afghan district, a battlefield success the insurgents failed to achieve in 2017.