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Afghanistan summit: Why is the US backing talks with the Taliban?

Heading into this week's summit of Afghan allies in London, the top US general in Afghanistan said he supported President Hamid Karzai's plan to reach out to the Taliban.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / January 27, 2010

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shakes hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as they meet in central London, Wednesday. Afghan President Karzai gave assurances Wednesday to lift the defense burden from the US and its allies, as senior officials gathered in London.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

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Washington

Only the first few thousand “surge” forces have arrived in Afghanistan as part of the effort to tame the Taliban’s resurgence there. But the top US commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is already talking about a negotiated peace with the enemy – a move that would seem counterintuitive so early in the new counterinsurgency campaign.

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But McChrystal’s recent, vocal support of reconciliation and reintegration – welcoming top and low-level Taliban fighters to lay down their arms to join the Afghan political process – may be just good battlefield politics. McChyrstal, considered a sophisticated operator, is supporting President Hamid Karzai on the eve of a summit in London on Afghan security.

“As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting," said McChrystal in an interview with the Financial Times this week. "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.”

Also this week, the United Nations Security Council lifted sanctions against five top Taliban leaders. The move opens the door for the negotiated settlement backed by Mr. Karzai.

McChrystal’s support of this effort has been met with some surprise worldwide. Security in Afghanistan is still far from established, meaning the military is not yet in a position to dictate the terms of the reconciliation.

But there has been a shift in approach to reconciliation, say experts. The US and the international community have been more open to Karzai's attempts to bring former fighters into the political process as a way to bolster Karzai’s weak government.

“Our understanding is that Karzai is convinced that if he can protect those insurgents ..., he can turn many of them around and essentially change the dynamics of the insurgency,” says Haseeb Humayoon, a research analyst at the Institute for Study of War in Washington.

Other experts believe top officials in Washington are pushing for peace negotiations as an appealing option at a time when the American public’s support for the war is fragile at best.

A repeat of Iraq?

Moreover, all wars ultimately end with reconciliation, and the process is especially important to insurgencies. McChrystal’s push for it now may be a rhetorical carrot-or-stick admonition.

Negotiated settlements have worked before. Despite vast differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military worked intensely to reconcile with former Sunni fighters in Anbar province in Iraq in 2006. That ultimately set the stage for the so-called Anbar Awakening that ended much of the hostilities.

Sunni tribes there had become disenchanted with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which was killing Iraqis and stealing territory. In some cases, Al Qaeda would kill sheiks and leave their bodies in the desert, a form of disrespect to the region's thousand-year-old conventions.

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