In a change of tone for the first time, the U.S. is stating that a military solution to Afghanistan may not be possible. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday that victory in Afghanistan is still possible, by facilitating a Taliban reconciliation with the Afghan government.
Mattis spoke shortly before arriving in Kabul, where security concerns were so high that reporters traveling with him were not allowed to publish stories until his party had moved from the Kabul airport to the U.S.-led military coalition’s headquarters. That was the first such restriction on coverage of a Pentagon chief’s visit in memory.
Mattis said he would be meeting with President Ashraf Ghani and top U.S. commanders.”We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan,” he said, adding, “Not a military victory — the victory will be a political reconciliation” with the Taliban, which has achieved a stalemate in recent years and shown little interest in conceding to the Kabul government.
Mattis, a retired Marine general who commanded U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan in the opening weeks of the war in 2001, said getting the Taliban to reconcile en masse may be “a bridge too far.” So the emphasis is on drawing in Taliban elements piecemeal. He described this approach as an effort to “start peeling off those who are tired of fighting,” after more than 16 years of war.
The Taliban stance is that talks for a conflict-ending compromise must take place with Washington, not Kabul.
U.S. officials have conveyed messages to Taliban political representatives in Qatar urging the group to negotiate with the Afghan government. Neighboring countries are doubtful about America’s commitment to a political resolution. Pakistan, Iran and Russia are thought to maintain ties to militant proxies inside Afghanistan in case the war-ravaged country collapses.
On the military front, U.S. officials assert that years of effort to build a credible and effective Afghan army and air force are beginning to pay off.
Intelligence agencies, however, are painting a much bleaker picture as the Taliban control more is increasing in the rural areas of the country and as insurgent attacks continue in Kabul.
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