US, Britain, and UN weigh options amid rising violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan

Prospect of Afghan-Taliban peace talks gains currency

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Against the backdrop of a string of suicide bombings in Pakistan, British, American, and United Nations officials are grappling with the idea of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

On Monday, a suicide bomber struck the home of a prominent politician in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, an area that borders Afghanistan and that has become the site of ever-increasing attacks by the Taliban, Pakistan's English-language newspaper, The Nation, reports:

A suicide bomber killed 26 people and over 70 others were injured, many of them critically, on Monday in the latest attack to underscore the threat posed by Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.
The attacker blew himself up in a crowd of people at the house of Rashid Akbar Khan Nawani, an MNA [member of the National Assembly] from Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, in the town of Bhakkar, police and hospital officials said.

Mr. Nawani was not among the injured, the reports adds. The Los Angeles Times points out that this was the third attack targeting a prominent Pakistani politician this week.

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Last week, Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of a secular party that competes with Islamic militants for support among ethnic Pashtuns, escaped injury in a suicide bombing at a gathering in his family compound in Pakistan's troubled northwest. On Sunday, suspected insurgents fired rockets at the home of a senior official in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, where much of the recent violence has been centered.

The escalating violence comes amid reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been trying unsuccessfully to negotiate with Taliban leaders, with Saudi Arabia as an intermediary. The Financial Times reported last week:

Mr Karzai said his envoys had travelled to Saudi -Arabia and neighbouring Pakistan to try to kick-start negotiations that are increasingly seen as the only solution to the violent insurgency gripping Afghanistan.

On the Pakistani side, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is reported to have helped broker the deal, according to The News, an English language newspaper in Pakistan.

...Nawaz Sharif is playing a key role in conjunction with Saudi Arabia in bringing about a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Karzai regime to pave the way for withdrawal of the US and Nato forces from Afghanistan....
"Nawaz Sharif was invited by Saudi King Abdullah and he undertook the present visit to stay in Saudi Arabia for nearly two weeks to talk about the nitty-gritty of the peace process," the source said.

But on Monday, a Taliban spokesman denied any peace negotiations had been held, according to the Associated Press (AP).

A former Taliban ambassador said Monday that the hard-line militants sat with Afghan officials and Saudi King Abdullah over an important religious meal in Saudi Arabia late last month as the insurgency raged back home.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, denied that the get-together could be construed as peace talks. But President Hamid Karzai has long called for negotiations with the Taliban, and the meeting could spur future initiatives.

Whatever the nature of the meeting, the idea of peaceful negotiations has gained greater currency in recent days. The Sunday Times reports that an outgoing British general has said war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily.

The departing commander of British forces in Afghanistan says he believes the Taleban will never be defeated.
Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade... told The Times

that in his opinion, a military victory over the Taliban was "neither feasible nor supportable."...

He indicated that the only way forward was to find a political solution that would include the Taliban.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did not agree with Mr. Carleton-Smith's assessment, but did not reject the idea of talks with the Taliban, the BBC reports.

Speaking on board a flight to Budapest to meet Nato defence ministers, Mr Gates rejected the assertion made by Brig Carleton-Smith that a "decisive military victory" should not be expected.
"While we face significant challenges in Afghanistan, there certainly is no reason to be defeatist or to underestimate the opportunities to be successful in the long run," he said.
But Mr. Gates agreed that part of the solution to the conflict would involve talks with members of the Taliban who are willing to work with the Afghan government.

A top United Nations official in Kabul called for a political solution, the AP reports.

With U.S. and NATO forces suffering their deadliest year so far in Afghanistan, the top U.N. envoy, Kai Eide, said Monday that the war "has to be won through political means."

Mr. Eide raised the question of how engagement would actually proceed, but reiterated its importance, the AP adds.

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