Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sees opportunity to make peace with Taliban

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (center) made an unannounced visit to Kabul. ‘‘All wars come to an end,’’ Mattis said.
Thomas Watkins/AFP/Getty Images
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (center) made an unannounced visit to Kabul. ‘‘All wars come to an end,’’ Mattis said.

KABUL — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Afghanistan on Tuesday to meet senior US and Afghan officials and discuss both the military campaign and ‘‘peeling off’’ some members of the Taliban to pursue a peace deal with the Afghan government.

The unannounced visit comes two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made what many observers consider an unprecedented offer, inviting the Taliban to begin peace talks without preconditions to end the 16-year war. The Taliban said last month that it is open to reaching a political settlement and negotiating, but it has not responded to Ghani’s offer.

Mattis, speaking on a flight to Afghanistan from Oman, said that talking about a peace settlement is ‘‘not cart before the horse’’ and that it is backed by the ongoing efforts of the US and Afghan militaries. Some members of the Taliban may be willing to pursue peace, especially considering a fracturing in the group that has occurred over the past few years, he said.


‘‘All wars come to an end,’’ Mattis said. ‘‘You don’t want to miss an opportunity because you weren’t alert to the opportunity. So, you need to have that door open, even if you embrace the military pressure.’’

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Mattis acknowledged that efforts to reconcile with the entire Taliban have been difficult. The effort right now, he said, is to reach ‘‘those who are tired of fighting’’ and build it out from there.

Army Brigadier General Michael R. Fenzel, a senior US military planning officer, said Tuesday that the fact that the Taliban hasn’t already dismissed meeting with the Afghan government about negotiations already may be a positive sign. Typically, the group dismisses conversations like that out of hand, Fenzel said.

The general said that the US-led military coalition has seen ‘‘significant evidence across the entire country that there is interest’’ in reconciliation, with groups of 10 and 20 Taliban fighters at a time turning themselves in. He acknowledged, however, that their doing so has not yet ‘‘reached critical mass.’’

The defense secretary and his staff arrived at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on a C-17 jet in the morning before being whisked away on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in damp, chilly weather to the US military headquarters in Kabul. He met immediately with senior officials, including US Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass and Army General John W. Nicholson Jr., the top US officer in Afghanistan. Afterward, he visited with Ghani and other senior Afghan officials at the Presidential Palace.


Ghani said at the palace that President Trump’s new South Asia strategy, adopted in August, allows Afghan officials to tell their people that talking about peace with the Taliban ‘‘is not tantamount to surrender or to collapse.’’ The strategy calls for ramping up military and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to force a negotiated settlement, and does not include a timetable for US military withdrawal, a notable difference to the plan under former president Barack Obama.

Ghani noted that an offer of peace in the 1990s ultimately led to the collapse of the Afghan government, ‘‘and people always carry their memories.’’

Mattis visited the country for the second time Tuesday since the new strategy was unveiled. The Pentagon chief is among a small group of senior advisers who convinced Trump that it made sense to not only continue the US role in the war but also bolster it with more air power and a modest increase in the number of US troops from about 11,000 to 14,500.

But the Taliban remain a powerful force in Afghanistan, regularly carrying out high-profile attacks in and around Kabul in addition to holding or contesting more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s territory.

The defense secretary’s latest visit included a new security precaution in which journalists traveling with him were directed to withhold publishing anything until after he left the airport and arrived at the US military headquarters in Kabul. That followed a Taliban attack on the airport in September a few hours after Mattis’s last visit. The attack prompted a US response that led to civilian casualties when an American jet dropped a malfunctioning missile on a nearby home.


Trump, in announcing his plan, said that it was his initial instinct to pull out US troops — an apparent acknowledgment of how unpopular the war is with the American public after more than 2,200 US military fatalities and more than $1 trillion in taxpayer spending. Senior US officers, including Nicholson, have said that the US military has reached a turning point in Afghanistan this year, but similar points have been made in the past.