U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit to take stock of the war and the prospects of drawing some elements of the Taliban into peace talks with the Afghan government.
The March 13 visit, which was not announced in advance due to security concerns, comes as the United States is putting new resources into the more than 16-year-old war.
Before landing in the Afghan capital, Mattis told reporters that the United States was picking up signs of interest from groups of Taliban fighters in exploring the possibility of talks to end the violence, adding that the signs date back several months.
"There is interest that we've picked up from the Taliban side," Mattis said. "We've had some groups of Taliban -- small groups -- who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking."
"It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop -- that would be a bridge too far. But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government," he told reporters aboard a military jet.
As part of its new regional strategy announced in August 2017, Washington has stepped up assistance to the Afghan military in a bid to break the stalemate and force the militants to the negotiating table.
During a meeting with Mattis, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the new strategy allowed Kabul to extend its peace offer to the Taliban without doing so from a position of weakness.
"It has been a game changer because it has forced every actor to re-examine their assumptions," Ghani said.
Ghani Offers Incentives
On February 28, 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.
In return, the militants would have to recognize the Kabul government and respect the rule of law.
But the Taliban has so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government, which they say is illegitimate.
The group has insisted it would only negotiate with the United States, which it calls a "foreign occupying force." The Taliban also says that NATO forces must withdraw before negotiations can begin.
Asked whether the United States would be willing to directly talk with the Taliban, Mattis reiterated the U.S. position that the talks should be led by Kabul.
"We want the Afghans to lead and provide the substance to the reconciliation effort," he said.
The Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks in 2015, but they broke down almost immediately.
As part of its new strategy for Afghanistan, the United States has boosted the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by at least 3,500, to a total of more than 14,000, and stepped up air strikes in the country.
Mattis told reporters that the goal is to convince the Taliban militants that they cannot win, which would hopefully push them toward reconciliation.
"We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan," he said. "Not a military victory -- the victory will be a political reconciliation."
Taliban fighters control large parts of the country, and thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians are being killed every year.
In a report published late on March 12, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that more than 30,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of the year due to continued conflict in Afghanistan.