U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Kabul for a surprise visit on September 7 to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the new commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan and discuss progress on talks with the Taliban.
The United States a year ago adopted a strategy of stepping up pressure on the Taliban to negotiate by increasing air strikes and sending thousands more troops to train and advise Afghan forces, but the effort has not as yet yielded major headway in the fight against the militants or resulted in peace talks to end the 17-year war.
Mattis is accompanied by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford.
U.S. Army General Scott Miller assumed command of NATO forces in Afghanistan on September 2, arriving amid a renewed push to force the Taliban to take up the Afghan government's repeated offers for peace negotiations this year.
Speaking with reporters this week, Mattis said he was hopeful about peace talks, despite a recent spate of savage attacks by the Taliban and Islamic State group that have left hundreds of security forces and civilians dead.
"Right now, we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage," Mattis said. "It now has some framework, there's some open lines of communication."
Over the summer, a top U.S. State Department official met Taliban officials in Qatar to try to lay the ground work for broader peace talks. And this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed a new special envoy to Afghanistan tasked with encouraging reconciliation efforts.
U.S. officials say one sign of hope is that the Taliban accepted a temporary truce offered by the government in June.
"The most important work that has to be done is beginning the political process and reconciliation," Dunford told reporters travelling with him.
"What we are trying to do in the military dimension is convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield and that they must engage in a peace process."