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As Fighting Season Begins In Afghanistan, Trump Administration Aims For Peace Talks


With the arrival of spring comes the return of the fighting season in Afghanistan. This will be the 17th spring with U.S. forces on the ground there. Ask officials how the war is going, you'll get a range of opinions. NPR's David Welna found that out this month on a trip to the war zone.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In a cavernous military C-17 transport jet descending toward Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is grappling with a reporter's question about whether it's possible to win in Afghanistan.


JAMES MATTIS: We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan. And what does that victory look like? It's a country whose own people and their own security forces can handle law enforcement and any threats.

WELNA: Mattis contends that the wind, as he puts it, has gone out of the Taliban's sails. It's a far rosier picture than what Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats had painted for Congress just a few days earlier.


DAN COATS: In Afghanistan, we assess the overall security picture will modestly deteriorate in the coming year and Kabul will continue to bear the brunt of Taliban-led insurgency.

WELNA: Two big Chinook helicopters whisk us from Bagram Air Base to the headquarters of the U.S.-led military coalition in downtown Kabul. As Mattis meets privately with top commanders, eight of us journalists traveling with him get our own briefing.

BRIG GEN MICHAEL FENZEL: It's an honor, frankly, to be able to share the work we're doing.

WELNA: Army Brigadier General Michael Fenzel is on his third tour of Afghanistan. He's in charge of planning military operations, and he's just decided to extend his stay another six months.

FENZEL: I see us truly turning a corner. And I know this is a very - something very difficult to sell.

WELNA: Fenzel should know. He did a doctoral thesis on the ill-fated Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. What's different this time, he says, is that the U.S. has turned the fighting over to Afghanistan's security forces.

FENZEL: They're fighting every single day the way we were fighting when I was here last. But the difference is they are not struggling.

WELNA: Next stop, the peaceful grounds of Gul Khana palace.


PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: Mr. Secretary, it's a great pleasure to welcome you on behalf of the government of national unity.

WELNA: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is meeting here with Mattis. The Afghan leader assures him that the Trump administration's South Asia strategy, unveiled last August, has proven to be what Ghani calls a game changer.


GHANI: Because of the game-changing nature of the strategy we, the government of national unity, offered peace to Taliban.

WELNA: Ghani offered last month for the first time to hold peace talks with the Taliban with no preconditions. The Taliban have not formally responded. They want to talk to the real power in Afghanistan - the U.S. That night at Bagram Air Base where Mattis is staying a not-so-subtle message arrives.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Continue to take cover. Sector security sweeps in progress.

WELNA: A 107-millimeter rocket shell has just exploded over the south side of the sprawling military compound, this despite all that upbeat talk about a turning point.

BARNETT RUBIN: It is total utter nonsense of the sort that we have heard from the military for 17 years.

WELNA: Speaking from New York, that's Barnett Rubin. He's a scholar of Afghanistan at New York University and former State Department adviser who's watched the Taliban's moves closely.

RUBIN: If there's any turning point, it's that I see more consistent statements by the United States than before that we need a negotiated settlement. And that may be the reason that the Taliban are more inclined to explore whether we are serious this time.

GEN JOHN NICHOLSON: Hey, good to see you guys.

WELNA: The next morning, we meet with the coalition's top commander, General John Nicholson. He says they and the Afghan forces they're training are inflicting, in his words, very high casualties on the Taliban.

NICHOLSON: My perception of what's going on inside the Taliban is they're tired of this war as well. They'd like to return home. They'd like to rejoin society.

WELNA: Still, as recently as November, Nicholson was calling the war in Afghanistan a stalemate. I ask him about that as he wraps up the briefing.

Is this still a stalemate?

NICHOLSON: I'm sorry?

WELNA: Is this still a stalemate?

NICHOLSON: Thanks very much.

WELNA: And with that the briefing is over. Flying back to the U.S. Mattis, too, takes a pass when I ask if this is a stalemate.

MATTIS: I don't want to characterize the military campaign right now.

WELNA: The tactical fight, Mattis adds, goes on. David Welna, NPR News, aboard the defense secretary's military jet.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR'S "AKIKO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.