US Defence Secretary Mattis arrives in Kabul on unannounced visit

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrives at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Tuesday

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrives at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Tuesday

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has arrived in the Afghan capital to take stock of the war, with emphasis on prospects for drawing at least some Taliban fighters into reconciling with the Afghan government.

Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul on an unannounced visit that there was interest in reaching a settlement "that we've picked up from the Taliban side".

The visit comes two weeks after President Ghani invited the Taliban to begin peace talks without preconditions to end the 16-year-old war in the Kabul Process Conference last month.

But Mattis said some insurgent leaders have expressed an interest in discussions.

U.S. President Donald Trump in August announced an increase in the number of U.S. troops in the country to push back the resurgent Taliban. That may be a bridge too far to expect.

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

In August previous year, 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.

"It's all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory", Mattis said.

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In January, Taliban gunmen stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing 22 people.

Uzbekistan is set to host an Afghan peace conference later this month, where participants are expected to call for direct talks between the militant group and Ghani's government.

In exchange for these provisions, Ghani said the Taliban should officially recognize the Western-backed Afghan government and the country's constitution.

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

Mattis' comments could signal a softening of Washington's stance to the talks.

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.

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

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

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