WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis said Wednesday that peace talks in Afghanistan now have a true framework and that reconciliation efforts are more of a reality than ever before.
“Right now we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage. It now has some framework,” Mattis told reporters on his way to India. “There’s some open lines of communication. So I thinks that’s the difference.”
Mattis said he is still a believer “that there is a way forward for the Taliban to reconcile in an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process.” Not so for ISIS elements in Afghanistan, which are being battled by both the NATO-coalition and the Taliban, he added.
Pentagon officials have acknowledged that a military victory in Afghanistan is not likely. The U.S. began fighting there in 2001; U.S. forces just received a new commander last weekend.
“If a year ago we had assessed that there would be the level of combat between ISIS and the Taliban, I think that would have been crossed off by some people as wishful thinking,” Mattis said. “This fighting will probably continue between them, and we will continue to hit ISIS hard.”
He also said he was hopeful Pakistan — which just elected a new leader who is strongly anti-American — will help move Afghanistan toward a more peaceful place. “We do expect that Pakistan will be part of a community of nations that gives no haven to terrorism,” he said.
Mattis is traveling to India and other nations and is accompanied by a small group of Pentagon reporters known as a pool. Talk Media News is part of those who rotate in the pool and has access to Mattis’ remarks.
The centerpiece of Mattis trip is a “2+2 meeting” held by him and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with their Indian counterparts. The U.S. has increased efforts to build closer and deeper relations with India for economic, political and military reasons.
“My visit is a firm indication of what we see as India’s place among our most strategic and I would even call them consequential emerging partners, and not just in the Indo-Pacific region but in the world, as India steps up to its legitimate role, as they see it, in the community of nations,” Mattis told Pentagon reporters.
The trip is likely to reinforce shared goals such as rule of law and the freedom of navigation, Mattis said. However, it ”also will likely address India’s planned purchase of a S-400 anti missile system from Russia — part of what Mattis called “honest discussions built on common ground….a foundation that can take any perturbations in stride without alarm.
Mattis also expressed concern about the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government as it prepares an assault on the enclave of Idlib, home to thousands of refugees.
He said the Syrian government’s attempts to suggest the opposition has chemical weapons and plans to use them is a ruse.
“We have zero intelligence that shows the (Syrian) opposition has any chemical capability. We have seen the repeated use (of chemical weapons) in this fight by the Assad regime. So we have made very clear that by putting out innuendo that somehow any chemical weapon use coming up in the future can be ascribed to the opposition, well we want to see the data,” Mattis said.
“And right now we have data — not just American data, not just U.S. data, but international data — that the Assad regime has done this before. And we are watching very closely for this,” he said. “We cannot see anything that indicates the opposition has that capability.”
Asked if the Assad regime is getting ready to use chemical weapons, Mattis demurred in response. “I think the best answer to that is that we are very alert.”