James Mattis Makes Surprise Visit to Afghanistan Amid Push to Restart Peace Talks With Taliban

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, second from left, arriving in Kabul on Friday. He has expressed hope that the long-moribund Afghan peace process can be restarted.
Thomas Watkins/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit Friday, in the midst of a push by the Trump administration to restart peace talks with the Taliban.

Mr. Mattis was joined in Kabul, the capital, by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., and was met by the new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Scott Miller, ahead of a planned meeting with President Ashraf Ghani. Apache helicopter gunships circled the American Embassy and the United States-led coalition’s military headquarters for a half-hour as the delegation arrived.

Haroon Chakhansuri, a spokesman for Mr. Ghani, said that the American officials had discussed peace prospects as well as other subjects with the president and the Afghan government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah.

The officials did not make any public comments during the visit.

Mr. Mattis has recently expressed hope that the long-moribund peace process could be restarted. Talking to reporters aboard his plane as he flew to India on Wednesday, he said the American Embassy in Kabul had dedicated more staff to working on reconciliation with the Taliban.

“We have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage,” Mr. Mattis said. “It now has some framework, there’s some open lines of communication.”

That appeared to be an indirect acknowledgment of a July meeting between a senior State Department official and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. The State Department’s senior South Asia diplomat, Alice Wells, participated, according to Taliban officials.

That meeting marked a departure from an earlier insistence by the United States that any peace talks should begin between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The insurgents have insisted they would only negotiate with the Americans, dismissing the Afghan government as a “puppet regime.”

Despite the new approach, American officials have insisted that the peace process would still be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.”

President Ghani recently appointed Hamdullah Mohib, a computer expert who had been Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington but has little security experience, to be his new national security adviser, a cabinet position.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Rod Nordland and Fahim Abed