By Phil Stewart
KABUL (Reuters) - The United States is picking up signs of interest from Taliban elements in exploring the possibility of talks with Kabul to end the more than 16-year-old war, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday, as he made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.
"There is interest that we've picked up from the Taliban side," Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul, saying the signs date back several months.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last month offered talks without preconditions with the Taliban insurgents, in what was seen by U.S. officials as a major overture from Kabul.
Mattis said some of his indications, which he did not detail, dated back before Ghani's remarks.
"We've had some groups of Taliban – small groups – who have
either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking," Mattis said.
"In other words, it may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop. That may be a bridge too far to expect. But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government."
The United States has in the past also expressed hope of “peeling off” elements of the Taliban and it was unclear how this new effort might be different.
As part of its new regional strategy announced last year, the United States has stepped up assistance to the Afghan military and greatly increased air strikes against the Taliban, in a bid to break the stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table.
Mattis said the goal was to convince the Taliban insurgents that they cannot win, which would hopefully push them toward reconciliation.
However, Taliban fighters control large parts of the country, the Kabul government itself is deeply divided and thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians are being killed every year.
Uzbekistan is set to host an Afghan peace conference later this month, where participants are expected to call for direct talks between the militant group and Ghani's government.
However, the Taliban appears likely to miss the Afghan peace conference and has so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government in Kabul, which they say is an illegitimate, foreign-imposed regime.
They have offered to directly talk to the United States about a possible peace agreement.
Asked whether the United States would be willing to directly talk with the Taliban, Mattis reiterated the U.S. position that the talks should be led by Kabul.
"We want the Afghans to lead and provide the substance to the reconciliation effort," Mattis said.
While the United States has been stepping up battlefield pressure, Afghanistan's international partners have sought to build up diplomatic support from neighboring countries to push the militants to the negotiating table.
President Donald Trump’s administration has also piled pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militant safe havens on its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Mattis said he had seen some positive indications from Islamabad, noting some Pakistani military operations along the border.
Outlining his goals for the trip, Mattis said he wanted to both get an assessment of the re-tooled U.S. war effort as well as the reconciliation efforts.
Reconciliation, Mattis said, was "almost an equal priority of my interest going in."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Robert Birsel)