Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani recently offered a comprehensive peace deal to the Taliban, but the militants have not responded and have increased their attacks. The former Marine general said it "may be a bridge too far" to expect the Islamic insurgent force to sit down at the negotiating table "in one fell swoop".
"Right now we want the Afghans to lead and to provide the substance of the reconciliation effort", Mattis said.
Before landing in the Afghan capital, Mattis told reporters that the United States was picking up signs of interest from groups of Taliban fighters in exploring the possibility of talks to end the violence, adding that the signs date back several months.
President Ghani offered late last month to hold unconditional talks with the Taliban and recognize the group as a political party that would contest elections.
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The insurgent group has said it is prepared to negotiate, but only with the United States and not with the Kabul government.
The Afghan government and the Taliban held peace talks in 2015, but they broke down nearly immediately.
Afghan security forces recaptured a district headquarters in western Farah province on Monday, just hours after the Taliban overrun the police and administrative offices, killing eight policemen, a spokesman said.
Mattis told reporters that the goal is to convince the Taliban militants that they can not win, which would hopefully push them toward reconciliation.
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The UN said on Tuesday that 30,672 people have been displaced in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year due to continued conflict.
"It's all working to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory", Mattis said.
Mattis also said he had seen some changes in Pakistan's behaviour since Trump blasted the country past year for harbouring the Taliban.
As part of the so-called South Asia Strategy, President Donald Trump past year ordered the increased bombing of Taliban targets - including drug-making labs and training camps.
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