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Mattis makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan, pushes Taliban peace talks: report
Mattis, joined by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, made the trip at a time of worsening security in the country ahead of October's parliamentary election and a presidential election scheduled for April. The bilateral talks reportedly included discussion of reforms to Afghanistan national defense and security forces (ANDSF).
The two U.S. officials met Ghani in his presidential palace, where they discussed "peace process, positive impact of the South Asia strategy, reforms in ANDSF, upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, counter-terrorism and dialogue with Pakistan," Ghani's official spokesman said on Twitter following the meeting.
The United States has about 14,000 military personnel in Afghanistan to counter terrorist groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as to train and assist Afghan forces.
It's been a year since President Trump announced a new strategy to help end the 17-year war, injecting more than 3,000 troops into the fight and increasing air strikes.
But there's been little progress, and Washington has called on Taliban leaders in the country to broker peace talks.
Mattis and Dunford also met with Army Gen. Scott Miller, the new head of NATO forces in Afghanistan who took command on Sunday.
Insurgents have continued to launch high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, including an ISIS-claimed rocket attack last month in Kabul while Ghani was giving a televised speech to mark the Eid al-Adha holiday.
Control of territory has also remained largely unchanged, with 65 percent of Afghans living in areas under government control. About 12 percent live under the Taliban and 23 percent reside in contested areas, according to the latest quarterly inspector general report on the mission.
Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Mattis said he was hopeful about peace talks with the Taliban.
"Right now, we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage," he said. "It now has some framework, there's some open lines of communication."
Gen. John Nicholson, the previous commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said in May that there was an "intensified dialogue" between Taliban leaders and Afghan government officials.
That was followed by reports that a top State Department official met Taliban officials in Qatar to jumpstart peace talks.
"The most important work that has to be done is beginning the political process and reconciliation," Dunford told reporters, according to Reuters. "What we are trying to do in the military dimension is convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield and that they must engage in a peace process."
Mattis also pressed an "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process" while speaking at the Pentagon last month.
"We believe that the best way to get there is to ensure the Taliban recognizes they can't win on the battlefield, they must negotiate," Mattis said at the time.