Elements of the Taliban are open to talks with the Afghan government, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday, a potentially significant move that runs counter to the insurgents' long-term refusal to talk to Kabul.
Mattis flew into the war-torn nation on an unannounced visit two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani unveiled a plan to open peace talks with the Taliban, Afghanistan's biggest militant group.
The Taliban have so far given no formal response to Kabul's offer for negotiations, but have published a lengthy statement and an online commentary that analysts say are an oblique rejection of the proposal.
But Mattis said some Taliban figures have expressed an interest in joining the discussions.
"It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop, that would be a bridge too far, but there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government," Mattis said.
The Pentagon chief's visit to the Afghan capital comes as US and Afghan forces ramp up air strikes against the Taliban as part of President Donald Trump's new strategy for the region, which Ghani called a "game changer" for the country.
"It has forced every actor to re-examine their assumptions," Ghani said as he met with Mattis at Kabul's presidential palace.
"Some of that re-examination is likely to lead to the intensification of conflict in the short term but the re-examination is what the people of Afghanistan have been (waiting for) for 40 years."
Ghani's peace plan includes eventually recognising the Taliban as a political party.
The group has said it is prepared to negotiate, but only with the United States and not with the Kabul government.
- US looks to 'victory' -
The Taliban last week described the Afghan government as "illegitimate" and its peace process efforts as "deceptive", in a statement calling for a boycott of an Islamic scholars' conference in Jakarta.
"Right now we want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance of the reconciliation effort," Mattis said.
Brigadier General Michael Fenzel, planning director for NATO's mission in Afghanistan, said he had seen signals that some among the Taliban were willing to negotiate.
"In each one of our areas, there are groups of 10 and 20 that are coming in, not wanting to be a part of the Taliban any longer," Fenzel told reporters.
Thanks to the political process, Mattis said America was now looking towards victory in Afghanistan after more than 16 years of conflict.
"What does that victory look like? It's a country whose own people and their own security forces handle law enforcement and any threats... certainly with international support for some years to come," he said.
The US has renewed its focus on Afghanistan after years of drawdowns under former president Barack Obama and talk by top US generals of "not winning" and of a "stalemate" in the seemingly intractable conflict.
"It's all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory," Mattis said.
"The victory will be a political reconciliation."
- Jump in attacks -
As part of the so-called South Asia Strategy, Trump last year ordered the increased bombing of Taliban targets -- including drug-making labs and training camps.
More than 3,000 additional US forces have also arrived in Afghanistan to boost the training and advising of local troops.
Approximately 14,000 American forces are currently in Afghanistan, up from a low of about 8,500 when Obama left office.
Ghani's offer of peace talks comes as civilian casualties have soared in recent months, with the Taliban increasingly targeting towns and cities in response to Trump's aggressive military policy.
The Taliban claimed 472 attacks in January alone, the Washington-based terrorism research group TRAC said -- an astonishing number given that the traditional fighting season does not usually start until freezing temperatures have subsided in the spring.
Mattis said the jump in attacks on civilians was an indication that a pressured Taliban is unable to conduct broader, ground-taking operations.
The Afghan security forces were able to stop some attacks, Mattis said, though he noted he wanted to see them shift to a more "offensive mindset" in the coming months.
Mattis's surprise Afghan visit, his third as Pentagon chief, was kept under tight wraps after a security incident during his last trip in September, when insurgents shelled Kabul's airport hours after he arrived.
Mattis also said he had seen some changes in Pakistan's behaviour since Trump blasted the country last year for harbouring the Taliban.
"There are operations by the Pakistan military that are helping right now, ongoing as we speak," he said.