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US picking up Taliban interest in Afghan peace talks: Mattis

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The US is picking up interest from the Taliban in exploring the possibility of talks with Kabul to end the war, said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis

Reuters, Kabul :
The United States is picking up signs of interest from Taliban elements in exploring the possibility of talks with Kabul to end the more than 16-year-old war, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday as he made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.
"There is interest that we've picked up from the Taliban side," Mattis told reporters before landing in Kabul, saying the signs dated back several months.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered talks without preconditions with the Taliban insurgents last month, in what was seen by U.S. officials as a major overture from Kabul.
Mattis said some of his indications, which he did not detail, dated back before Ghani's remarks.
"We've had some groups of Taliban - small groups - who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking," Mattis said.
"In other words, it may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop. That may be a bridge too far to expect. But there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government," he said.
The United States has in the past also expressed hope of "peeling off" elements of the Taliban and it was unclear how this new effort might be different.
Western diplomats and officials in Kabul say contacts involving intermediaries have been underway with the aim of agreeing on ground rules and potential areas of discussion for possible talks with at least some elements in the Taliban.
However, the insurgents, who seized a district center in western Afghanistan earlier this week, have given no public sign of accepting Ghani's offer, instead issuing several statements suggesting they intended to keep fighting.
The United States has stepped up assistance to the Afghan military and greatly increased air strikes against the Taliban as part of its new regional strategy announced last year, in a bid to break the stalemate and force the insurgents to the negotiating table.

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