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Push for Reconciliation in Run-up to Afghan Meet

Inter Press Service

On the eve of a major international conference on Afghanistan, senior U.S. and British officials are hinting that they are more open to a political settlement with elements of the Taliban than at any time since Washington helped oust it from power nine years ago.

Whether they are genuinely committed to such a settlement – which could include power sharing with the some of the insurgency’s leaders – or are indicating new flexibility in order to secure greater commitments by Washington’s NATO and other allies in advance of Thursday’s conference in London remains unclear.

The conference, which will bring together senior officials from all of the governments taking part in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as well as Afghanistan’s neighbours, other donors, and the United Nations, will take up a packed agenda that includes security, governance, development and regional relations. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will co-chair the meeting.

“The biggest deliverable of all from next week’s conference is an understanding among the 70 or so foreign ministers who will be attending – and also I hope the wider public – of the coherence and clarity of the plan for the future of Afghanistan,” said Britain’s Foreign Minister David Miliband at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee here last Thursday.

He was joined by Special U.S. Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke who sought to assure worried lawmakers that Washington and its allies were making steady progress in halting and reversing advances made by the Taliban over the last several years.

As part of the much-touted “civilian surge” that has accompanied Washington’s military escalation by the administration of President Barack Obama over the past 10 months and is set continue at least through the end of this year, he said, Washington has tripled the number of U.S. aid workers in Afghanistan and plans additional increases.

Civilian experts are now working with military units in the southern province of Helmand “where insurgents operated uncontested just a few months ago,” he said.

The two men’s testimony came amid hopes that NATO leaders, virtually all of whose electorates appear increasingly weary of the fight against the Taliban and the higher casualty tolls it has exacted, will pledge more resources – both military and civilian -to the effort.

The 43 nations participating in ISAF currently have some 85,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, all but a handful of whom, however, are contributed by NATO countries. With some 70,000 troops, the United States is by far the largest source, followed by Britain, which currently has some 10,000 troops there.

Under a plan announced by Obama last December, U.S. troop strength will rise to more than 100,000 by the middle of 2011 when he said he will begin a drawdown whose pace will be determined by conditions on the ground.

In addition to reclaiming ground lost to the Taliban since its resurgence in 2006 and protecting key population centres, Washington will be working with other ISAF contributors to build up the Afghanistan National Army and police force to some 134,000 troops and 82,000 officers by 2011.

Along with the U.S. military escalation, Washington is “surging” civilian advisers focused largely on promoting development, especially in agriculture, and improving governance and curbing the corruption for which Karzai’s family and regime have become notorious. They will also disburse funds to promote micro-enterprise and other sources of employment, especially for younger Afghans who might otherwise be attracted to the Taliban.

According to a 30-page State Department report released here last week, Washington also plans to integrate personnel from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department, the Department of Agriculture, and in Pentagon-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to work together with provincial and local Afghan leaders in regions where the central government has been virtually absent for several years.

The U.S. and Britain hope these plans will encourage other major donors, particularly those who are reluctant to contribute troops, to increase their own commitment to the civilian side of the counterinsurgency effort.

“(W)e will be focusing on how the political and civilian surge that we plan in Afghanistan can match and complement the military surge that is taking place,” Brown said Monday during a press conference in London.

Both the military and civilian components are designed above all to reverse the widespread perception, fostered in part by unprecedented casualties among western forces over the past year, that the Taliban is winning the war.

Unless key Taliban commanders can be persuaded that they cannot win, they are unlikely to enter into serious peace talks with the Karzai government, according to top U.S. officials.

Those same officials are now emphasising that peace talks and an eventual political settlement involving the Taliban are precisely what they are aiming for.

During a visit to Islamabad late last week, Pentagon chief Robert Gates said that he recognised that the Taliban could not be militarily defeated because it constituted part of Afghanistan’s “political fabric”.

“The question is whether the Taliban at some point in this process are ready to help build a 21st-century Afghanistan or whether they still just want to kill people,” he told Pakistani journalists. “Political reconciliation ultimately has to be a part of settling the conflict.”

His remarks were echoed in part by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in an interview published Monday by the Financial Times.

“As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting,” he said. “What I think we do is try to shape conditions which allow people to come to a truly equitable solution to how the Afghan people are governed.”

“I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past,” he added.

In another interview with the London Times Monday, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, also spoke favourably about the goal of a political settlement, suggesting that reconciliation could be achieved at both the local level with low-ranking fighters and local Taliban chiefs and with the at least some of the leaders.

“The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility,” he said.

Similarly, Miliband, in an interview with BBC Sunday, said he favoured talks between the Afghan government and at least some elements of the Taliban leadership.

“(W)hen people say to me should the Afghan government be talking to the Taliban, I have a very simple answer: yes, they should because it’s their country and they need to frame a political system that brings all those who are willing to sever their links with al Qaeda and live within the constitution into that country,” he said.

The unusually conciliatory statements came as the head of the U.N. mission in Kabul, Kai Eide, appealed Sunday for some Taliban leaders to be removed from a U.N. list of terrorists, thus opening the way to peace talks with them.

Sananda Sahoo and Jim Lobe write for the Inter Press Service. Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

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