US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday he believes victory in Afghanistan is still possible — not necessarily on the battlefield but in facilitating a Taliban reconciliation with the Afghan government.
Mattis spoke shortly before arriving in Kabul, where security concerns were so high that reporters traveling with him were not allowed to publish stories until his party had moved from the Kabul airport to the US-led military coalition's headquarters. That was the first such restriction on coverage of a Pentagon chief's visit in memory.
Mattis said he would be meeting with President Ashraf Ghani and top US commanders.
"We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan," he said, adding, "Not a military victory — the victory will be a political reconciliation" with the Taliban, which has achieved a stalemate in recent years and shown little interest in conceding to the Kabul government.
Mattis, a retired Marine general who commanded U.S.troops in southern Afghanistan in the opening weeks of the war in 2001, said getting the Taliban to reconcile en masse may be "a bridge too far." So the emphasis is on drawing in Taliban elements piecemeal.
He described this approach as an effort to "start peeling off those who are tired of fighting," after more than 16 years of war.
The visit is Mattis's second since President Donald Trump announced last August that, despite his instinct to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, his administration would take a more aggressive approach to the conflict, now in its 17th year.