KABUL (Reuters) - Increasing prospects of peace talks with the Taliban show the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is working, despite continuing violence and insurgent control of wide areas of the countryside, top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said on Monday.
The comments came as speculation has grown that talks to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan may be closer after last month’s ceasefire over the Eid holiday brought scenes of unarmed fighters and soldiers mingling on the streets.
“The advancement towards the reconciliation goal in President Trump’s strategy has seen progress in the last year that we haven’t seen in the previous 17 years and that is significant,” General John Nicholson, commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, told reporters.
“I believe this advancement towards peace is extremely relevant and in a way is perhaps more important than some of these other metrics that we’ve been using,” he said.
Almost a year after U.S. President Donald Trump sent more troops to Afghanistan and gave commanders greater authority to use air strikes against the Taliban, thousands of civilians are still being killed and wounded and the government holds no more than two-thirds of the country.
However General Joseph Votel, the top U.S. regional commander who was visiting Kabul, expressed “cautious optimism” about the progress made. He said the strategy, which set no deadline for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan, had squeezed the Taliban and created the space for diplomatic and social pressure for peace to build.
Amid growing diplomatic activity behind the scenes, President Ashraf Ghani has offered the Taliban peace talks without conditions and the United States has offered to support and participate in the talks, while insisting they would remain Afghan-led.
The Kabul government has also said it is considering offering another ceasefire during next month’s Eid al-Qurban holiday, an offer Nicholson endorsed, despite the “tactical risk” that fighters could use it to gain an advantage.
He said a serious threat remained from Islamic State fighters, who have claimed a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul and who control some areas in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar as well as in the northern province of Jawzjan, where they have been fighting the Taliban recently.
“We are very concerned about ISIS and we are going fully at ISIS and we also note that the Taliban are fighting ISIS and we encourage that because ISIS needs to be destroyed,” he said.
Commanders are preparing for a review of the U.S. strategy, which Votel said would be unlikely to lead to any significant change of course.
“I think the overall strategy that has been laid out here is working,” he said.
Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Bolton