By Idrees Ali
KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Kabul on Friday to meet the new commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan and discuss progress on talks with the Taliban, despite deteriorating security and turmoil within the Afghan government.
The United States is a year into its latest attempt to step up pressure on the Taliban by increasing air strikes and sending thousands more troops to train and advise Afghan forces, but the effort has yet to make Afghanistan more secure and stable. The 17-year-old war is America’s longest conflict.
Mattis is accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford.
U.S. Army General Scott Miller assumed command of NATO forces in Afghanistan on Sunday, arriving as Washington faces growing questions over its strategy to force the Taliban into talks to end the grinding conflict.
Speaking with reporters this week, Mattis said he was hopeful about peace talks with the Taliban.
“Right now, we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage,” Mattis said.
“It now has some framework, there’s some open lines of communication,” Mattis added.
Over the summer, a top U.S. State Department official met Taliban officials in Qatar to try to lay the ground work for broader peace talks.
The U.S. government has pointed towards the Taliban accepting a temporary truce in June, as a sign of why the talks should be viewed with hope.
“The most important work that has to be done is beginning the political process and reconciliation,” Dunford told reporters travelling with him.
“What we are trying to do in the military dimension is convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield and that they must engage in a peace process.”
Privately, however U.S. officials and experts are more cautious.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was unclear how much influence the Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, had over the group’s leadership.
“I think that both the U.S. and Afghanistan have perhaps exaggerated the good news in Afghanistan,” Michael Kugelman, with the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington.
Two insurgent commanders have told Reuters that the Taliban rejected a second ceasefire offered this month by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Ultimately, any chances of peace talks with the Taliban could come to a halt because of internal political issues within the Afghan government.
A public row that saw two top security officials trade recriminations live on television has sharply highlighted the divisions undermining the Western-backed government, even as insurgents have stepped up pressure on the battlefield.
The dispute came at the end of a deadly few weeks in which the Taliban killed hundreds of soldiers and police and briefly seized the strategic city of Ghazni.
In the same week, National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar, one of the most powerful figures in the government, resigned amid speculation he is preparing to challenge Ghani in next year’s presidential election.
Parliamentary elections are due in October before the presidential election in April.
“I would be surprised if anything major happens on the reconciliation front before the presidential election next year because the Taliban simply doesn’t see the government as a credible force,” Kugelman said.
The U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there were concerns about the lack of steps the Afghan government had taken in creating programmes for Taliban fighters looking to leave the militant group.
“If the Afghan government can be more responsive to disgruntled fighters, that would go a long way in creating legitimacy for the peace process,” the official said.
The official said the U.S. government had not used enough of its political leverage on this issue, and it could be something Mattis brings up with Ghani.
Any talks would not include the Islamic State militant group, which claimed credit for a suicide attack at a wrestling club in the Kabul that killed at least 20 people on Wednesday.
At times, the United States has found itself on the same side as the Taliban in opposing Islamic State in Afghanistan.
“As strange as it might sound, here we both view – both the Taliban and the NATO alliance supporting the Afghan government – view ISIS in the same light,” Mattis said.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)