U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, accompanied by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday for meetings with President Ashraf Ghani to discuss security issues and the prospect of peace talks with the Taliban.
Reuters noted Dunford is fresh from a visit to Pakistan with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, where the Taliban and its allies were a top agenda item. The U.S. has withheld military aid from Pakistan because it has not done enough to combat militant groups that stage operations in Afghanistan from the safety of the Pakistani tribal region.
Mattis and Dunford met with Ghani at the presidential palace in Kabul. A spokesman for the Afghan presidency said topics of discussion included “the peace process, positive impact of the South Asia strategy, reforms in ANDSF, upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, counter-terrorism and dialogue with Pakistan.”
Mattis and Dunford also met with the new commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller. Miller vowed that Afghanistan will never again be a “safe haven for terrorism” when he assumed command on Sunday, while his outgoing predecessor Gen. John Nicholson urged the Taliban to embrace a cease-fire proposal from Kabul and stop “killing fellow Afghans.”
Miller formerly headed the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and commanded special operations forces in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Somalia.
“Apache helicopter gunships circled the American Embassy and the U.S.-led coalition’s military headquarters for a half-hour as the delegation arrived,” the New York Times reported on Friday morning, a sign of the perilous security situation in Afghanistan.
On his trip to India, Mattis spoke encouragingly of peace talks with the Taliban.
“We have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage. It now has some framework, there’s some open lines of communication,” he said.
“The most important work that has to be done is beginning the political process and reconciliation,” Dunford added in his own press conference. “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.”
The Wall Street Journal observed that Secretary of State Pompeo has already appointed a “lead person,” with no other formal job title as of yet, to supervise the “peace process” with the Taliban. The job went to Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran diplomat who has been working the Afghan beat since the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. Khalilzad hails from Afghanistan and is an old friend of President Ashraf Ghani.
As for Kabul’s role in the peace process, Ghani somewhat discouragingly fired his defense and interior ministers and intelligent chief in August, then re-hired them the next day. His national security adviser quit suddenly and was replaced by a 35-year-old diplomat who has no significant military experience.
The Washington Post noted that Mattis did not speak with reporters after his meeting with Ghani.