Mattis said that “elements within the Taliban guerrillas” might be open to talks with the Afghan government to end the 16-year US war in the country.
The defense chief’s visit follows an escalation of bloody attacks by the Taliban on Aghan security forces in recent months. US forces have launched weeks of intensive bombing of the militants as part of Washington’s strategy to end the stalemate in the war.
Mattis’ comments come two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed a willingness to hold peace talks with the Taliban.
The insurgents spoke twice last month about the desire to hold talks with Washington, but so far have given no formal response to Kabul’s offer.
“It’s all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory,” Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul. “The victory will be a political reconciliation.”
“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 that are clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government.”
He gave no further details and failed to specify who within the movement was eager to talk. “Right now we want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance of the reconciliation effort,” he said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that efforts to reconcile with all of the Taliban had been difficult. The effort now is to reach “those who are tired of fighting” and build from there, he said.
President Donald Trump last year ordered increased bombing of Taliban targets, including drug-making labs and training camps. He also sent more than 3,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan to boost US training and advising of local forces.
Apart from other coalition forces, almost 14,000 US troops are now in Afghanistan, up from a low of about 8,500 when Obama left office.
Ghani’s offer of peace talks comes as his government faces unprecedented division. Civilian casualties have soared in recent months, with the Taliban increasingly conducting complex attacks, targeting towns and cities in response to Trump’s more aggressive military policy.
With the US taking more of an advisory role, Afghan security forces have been able to stop some attacks, Mattis said, though he wanted to see them shift to a more “offensive mindset” in the coming months.
His surprise visit — his third as Pentagon chief — was kept secret because of an incident during his last trip in September when insurgents shelled Kabul’s airport only hours after his arrival.
Mattis is also expected to hold talks with Ghani in addition to meetings with US commanders.
Waheed Mozhdah, an analyst who knows some of the Taliban’s past and current leaders, said the movement “has held indirect contacts with the US both before the announcement of Washington’s new war strategy and afterward.
“I know of contacts between the Taliban and the Americans. It seems that the Americans have reached the conclusion that the war has no military solution,” he told Arab News.
“I do not know which elements within the Taliban are prepared for talks with Kabul. If there are only isolated individuals coming over under the name of the Taliban, then we can not expect much.”
Mattis and Ghani will discuss peace with the Taliban, a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan and the coming elections in Afghanistan among other issues, a spokesman for Ghani, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, said.