U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met Friday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other top Afghan officials, including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Ghani said at the meeting that stopping attacks by Afghan forces on NATO troops is a national priority. The encounters are also known as “green on blue” or insider attacks. Ghani also praised the U.S. for expanding airstrikes.
Mattis arrived at Bagram Air Base Friday on an unannounced visit, one year into a new White House strategy for Afghanistan.
Despite a surge in violence, Mattis and other top U.S. officials insist President Donald Trump’s South Asia strategy, announced in August 2017, is helping bring the conflict to an end.
“Right now we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage,” Mattis told reporters while flying to India Tuesday.
Mattis pointed to “open lines of communication,” but stopped short of confirming U.S.-Taliban talks reportedly held in Qatar in late July.
“Reconciliation reinforced by the State Department — it’s put additional staff into the embassy with that sole effort — you’re seeing this now pick up traction,” he said.
This is Mattis’ fourth visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary. Earlier, Mattis visited New Delhi, where he praised India’s economic and development assistance to Afghanistan.
New phase of conflict
This week Army General Scott Miller took over as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the ninth U.S. general to lead the 17-year-old war.
Miller will be tasked with guiding the conflict into a reconciliation-focused phase, even while both sides ramp up attacks.
On Wednesday, a twin suicide bombing at a wrestling club in a predominantly Shiite area of Kabul killed at least 26 people, including two journalists.
The Afghanistan branch of Islamic State, known as ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for the attack. ISIS-K has proved resilient, even while doing battle with both the Taliban and U.S.-led forces.
Last week, the U.S. military announced it killed the leader of ISIS-K, Abu Saad Orakzai. He is the third ISIS-K leader to be killed since 2016.
The Taliban has also stepped up attacks. Last month, the insurgents launched a multifront offensive, overrunning at least two Afghan military bases and temporarily capturing parts of the key city of Ghazni.
The surge in Taliban violence may be meant to secure a better negotiating position ahead of future negotiations, says Ahmed Shuja, a Fulbright scholar and Afghan analyst.
“There has been serious overtures from the side of the Taliban but also from the American side for the last year or more actually,” he said. “And so we are I think at this point closer to a peace process than we have been in the last few years.”
But U.S. officials have expressed frustration at what they see as Pakistan’s lingering support for Taliban militants on their side of the border.
The U.S. last week withheld $300 million from Pakistan’s military “due to a lack of Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia Strategy.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week visited Islamabad, where he spoke of a “reset” in relations with Pakistan.
Pakistan, which denies sheltering Taliban militants, has a new government, led by former cricketer Imran Khan.
Mattis appears to hold out hope the new government will change its policies on Afghanistan.
“We do expect that Pakistan will be part of a community of nations that gives no haven to terrorism,” he said.