Mattis makes surprise visit to Kabul

AFP, KABUL

Sat, Sep 08, 2018 - Page 6

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis yesterday landed in Kabul for an unannounced visit to war-torn Afghanistan, adding his weight to a flurry of diplomatic efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

His trip came a little more than a year after US President Donald Trump unveiled a revamped strategy for Afghanistan that saw him commit thousands of additional US forces to the country on an open-ended basis.

Mattis, on his second visit to the country in the past few months, was to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the new US commander for US and NATO forces in the country, US Army General Austin Scott Miller.

Mattis’ arrival in Kabul comes at a sensitive time in the 17-year war.

The grinding conflict has seen little progress by Afghan or US forces against the Taliban, the country’s largest militant group. Afghan and international players have been ratcheting up efforts to hold peace talks with the Taliban, which was toppled from power by US-led forces in 2001.

An unprecedented ceasefire in June followed by talks between US officials and Taliban representatives in Qatar in July fueled hopes that negotiations could bring an end to the fighting.

DEADLY ATTACKS

However, a recent spate of attacks by the Taliban and the smaller, but potent Islamic State group that left hundreds of security forces and civilians dead has significantly dented that optimism.

A twin bomb attack on a wrestling club in a Shiite neighborhood of Kabul on Wednesday was just the latest in a long line of devastating assaults, killing at least 26 people and wounding 91.

The attack underscored the challenges facing Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces, which have been beset by corruption and low morale.

Trump’s strategy, announced in August last year, increased the US troop presence in the country and now includes a renewed push to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

However, there have been fears that Trump is growing frustrated with the pace of progress in the country, spurring US diplomats and other officials to intensify their efforts.

The Taliban have long insisted on direct talks with Washington and refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they have said is illegitimate.

There has been speculation that another meeting between US and Taliban representatives could be held this month.

REGIONAL TALKS

Mattis traveled to Kabul from New Delhi, where he and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with their Indian counterparts.

Pompeo on Wednesday also visited Islamabad, where he held talks with new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and other senior officials.

Pompeo said he was “hopeful” of resetting the troubled relationship with Pakistan, a key player in the Afghan conflict.