US notes Taliban 'interest' in peace talks

Indonesia Ulema Council chief Muhyiddin Junaidi right with an MUI official Amirsyah Tambunan

Indonesia Ulema Council chief Muhyiddin Junaidi right with an MUI official Amirsyah Tambunan

The United States is picking up signs of interest from Taliban elements in exploring the possibility of talks with Kabul to end the more than 16-year-old war, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday as he made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.

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 military is battling a Taliban insurgency while also fighting the Islamic State group's gradual expansion in the country's north and its regular attacks in the capital Kabul.

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

Ghani's peace plan includes eventually recognising the Taliban as a political party.

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

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

The defence secretary, who commanded U.S. troops as a Marine general in southern Afghanistan during the war with the Taliban in 2001, said that getting the militants on board for reconciliation may be a bridge too far.

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

Thanks to the political process, Mattis said America is now looking towards victory in Afghanistan after more than 16 years of conflict.

The Taliban has previously offered to hold talks on a possible peace agreement, but only directly with the United States, which Mattis rejects.

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

The insurgents have recently stepped up attacks against Afghan security forces across Farah province.

Mattis's surprise Afghan visit, his third as Pentagon chief, was kept under tight wraps after a security incident during his last trip in September, when insurgents shelled Kabul's airport hours after he arrived.

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