US Defence Secretary arrives in Afghanistan

By Phil Stewart

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

President Ghani offered late last month to hold unconditional talks with the Taliban and recognize the group as a political party that would contest elections.

But Mattis said some insurgent leaders have expressed an interest in discussions. "But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government", he said.

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.

The group controlled Afghanistan until 2001, when it was overthrown by the US-led coalition that invaded the country following the 9/11 attacks.

Mattis made the suggestion Tuesday before arriving in Kabul on an unannounced visit to discuss President Ashraf Ghani's plan to open peace talks with the Taliban.

United Nations said that over 445,000 people were displaced due to conflict in the country in 2017.

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The president also said the government will provide passports for Taliban members and their families, along with office space in Kabul.

The US has a renewed focus on Afghanistan after years of drawdowns under former president Barack Obama and talk by top US generals of "not winning" and of a "stalemate" in the seemingly intractable conflict.

Mattis said he had seen some positive indications from Islamabad, noting some Pakistani military operations along the border.

He will also meet United States commanders and allied troops posted in the country, TOLO news reported.

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.

However, the Taliban appears likely to miss that conference and have ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which they say is an illegitimate, foreign-imposed regime.

This is Mattis's second visit to the war-torn country after he last visited in September.

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