US picking up Taliban interest in Afghan peace talks: Mattis

US defence secretary is on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis. Photo: AFP

The United States is picking up signs of interest from Taliban elements in exploring the possibility of talks to end the more than 16-year-old war, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday, at the start of an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.

"There is interest that we´ve picked up from the Taliban side," Mattis told reporters shortly before landing in Kabul, saying the signs date back several months.

"We´ve had some groups of Taliban who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking,” he said. 

The statement comes after the foreign ministry in Uzbekistan said on Monday that the Taliban are likely to miss an Afghan peace conference at which participants are set to call for direct talks between the militant group and the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

Representatives of the group have made no application to attend the March 26-27 meeting in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, suggesting they will not attend, a ministry statement said.

Ghani is set to attend along with US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Also set to attend are the foreign ministers of India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkey and UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto.

The Taliban urged Washington last month to begin talks to end almost 17 years of war in Afghanistan, which suggests they want to explore dialogue.

The group ruled Afghanistan until 2001 when it was defeated by US-led troops in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and it is fighting to restore Islamic rule in the country.

Ghani in February offered recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group as part of a proposed process he said could lead to talks.

Conference participants will call for an urgent start of direct talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban, the press office of Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry said in a written reply to questions from Reuters.

The United States last year stepped up its military assistance to Afghanistan, notably through a sharp increase in air strikes, with the aim of breaking a stalemate with the insurgents and forcing them to the negotiating table.

While the US military says the strategy has hit the Taliban hard, they still control or contest much of the country.

On Monday, Afghan forces battled to recapture a district centre in the western province of Farah, after Taliban fighters seized the town in an overnight attack.