NEW DELHI - Attempts to end the 17-year-old U.S.-led war in Afghanistan are gaining traction, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insists.
“Right now we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage. It now has some framework,” Mattis told reporters on his plane en route to India.
Though he referred to “open lines of communication,” Mattis did not formally acknowledge the preliminary U.S.-Taliban talks reported to be held in Qatar. If confirmed, they would be the first direct U.S. talks with the Taliban in several years.
“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,” Mattis said.
Mattis did not say what, if any, new developments led to his assessment. But he mentioned the three-day, overlapping cease-fires declared unilaterally earlier this year by the Taliban and the Afghan government.
He also cited increased Afghan military capability and the “steadfast nature” of international support under the White House’s new South Asia strategy.
New phase of conflict?
The comments come as Army General Scott Miller takes over as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the ninth U.S. general to lead the 17-year-old war.
Miller will attempt to guide the conflict into a reconciliation-focused phase, even as heavy fighting continues.
Through the first half of the year, the U.S.-led coalition is on pace to drop a record number of bombs on Afghanistan, according to a VOA analysis of Pentagon data.
The Taliban has also increased its attacks, in what some see as an attempt to gain leverage ahead of more substantive peace talks.
“Violence is leverage… for all sides, but probably more so for the Taliban,” said former Pentagon adviser Christopher Kolenda, who helped set up the U.S.-Taliban talks.
“So in these exploratory phases, the Taliban can be perfectly serious about peace, but still engaging in these major operations,” Kolenda told VOA last month.
The uptick in violence coincides with the one-year anniversary of the Trump administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan.
U.S. officials insist the strategy is working, but continue to express 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 “due to a lack of Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia Strategy.”
The issue is sure to come up during U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Islamabad Wednesday.
Pakistan, which denies sheltering Taliban militants, has a new government, led by former cricketer Imran Khan.
Mattis on Tuesday appeared to hold out hope the new government would 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.
Mattis spoke before landing in India, where he is expected to push for greater Indian economic and development assistance in Afghanistan.