Afghanistan: on surprise visit, Mattis sees 'Taliban interest' in peace talks

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No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Bakhtawer blamed Taliban insurgents, who have stepped up attacks in the province in recent months against Afghan security forces.

But the Taliban has so far ruled out direct talks with the Western-backed government, which they say is illegitimate.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani recently offered a comprehensive peace deal to the Taliban, but the militants have not responded and have increased their attacks.

In Monday's assault, the Taliban launched a multi-pronged attack and stormed the district headquarters in Anardara, which they were able to hold on to for a few hours before Afghan reinforcements arrived.

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The UN said on Tuesday that 30,672 people have been displaced in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year due to continued conflict.

Mattis said the goal was to take advantage of Taliban fracturing to peel off insurgents exhausted of fighting and create a process that could incorporate some Taliban leaders. "What does that victory look like?"

The U.S. has a renewed focus on Afghanistan after years of drawdowns under former president Barack Obama and talk by top U.S. generals of "not winning" and of a "stalemate" in the seemingly intractable conflict.

"We want the Afghans to lead and provide the substance to the reconciliation effort", Mattis said. "Not a military victory - the victory will be a political reconciliation".

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It marks Mattis' third visit to the country, where about 11,000 USA troops are stationed.

Conference participants will call for an urgent start of direct talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban, the press office of Uzbekistan´s foreign ministry said in a written reply to questions from Reuters.

Asked whether the United States would be willing to directly talk with the Taliban, Mattis reiterated the USA position that the talks should be led by Kabul.

"Afghan security forces have been stretched thin as fighting escalated after winter ended, " the United Nations said.

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This is Mattis's second visit to the war-torn country after he last visited in September. "There are operations by the Pakistan military that are helping right now, ongoing as we speak", he said.

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