NATO officials mull Taliban talks but rule out direct contact

At a security conference in Munich, US and NATO officials says that an Afghanistan plan to negotiate with the Taliban won't include 'direct contact' between the US and the insurgents.

Allauddin Khan/AP
A convoy of soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force are reflected on a mirror of a vehicle in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday.

US and NATO officials sought to sharpen their approach to the Afghan war in the wake of a new strategy to engage the Taliban.

At a security conference in Munich this weekend, officials said the US is not engaged in “any direct contact” with the Taliban. They also said that while a withdrawal timeline is being drawn up, targets are conditional on "success" and that any Taliban forces that “want to reconcile” must “sever ties with Al Qaeda.”

US Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona added that NATO “can’t allow this to be Obama’s war,” saying it is “all our war.” Senator McCain predicted that 2010 “will be a tough year, casualties will go up…[it is] the toughest period of conflict…we should tell our allies.”

Clarifications were made via US special envoy Richard Holbrooke and UK Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth at a meeting of 300 top diplomats here a week after Afghan president Hamid Karzai received broad international support and funding in London for a policy known as “reconciliation and reintegration.” That policy involves pay-offs to help recruit Taliban foot soldiers who are not ideological allies with Al Qaeda.

Following the conference on Afghanistan's future held in London on Jan. 28, Mr. Holbrooke said: “The press has been obsessed with secret talks,” a reference to reports that outgoing UN special envoy Kai Eide met in Dubai with mid-level Taliban leaders and reports quoting retired Pakistani retired generals as saying that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghanistan Taliban, is tired of war and wants peace.

Holbrooke says that the US is not conducting Taliban talks, calling it a “red line” for US and Saudi Arabia. But he says the US is not in control of what UN officials may do – and left open the possibility that ethnic Pashtuns, who make up a majority of Taliban forces but also act as allies to US and Afghan forces, may act as intermediaries since "every Pashtun family has members" with Taliban ties.

Negotiating while conducting military operations are not mutually exclusive notions, Holbrooke says, citing the examples of Bosnia and Vietnam, both of which he was involved with. “Success in the military operations will affect whatever the decisions are,” he says.

At Munich, Mr. Karzai differentiated between “reconciliation,” a “vast” concept that would eventually bring in Taliban leaders, and “reintegration,” a concept that US military commanders are more comfortable with, that involves working with Afghan villages in an effort to “return to normalcy.”

President Karzai affirmed he is convening a “peace jirga” of Afghan elders this spring and said Pakistan will take steps to avert the “radicalization” of young men. Karzai also said that engaging the Taliban will not work “without an atmosphere conducive to it.”

The question of Afghanistan war policy is a delicate one for Western leaders whose publics have lost interest in the nearly nine-year fight, and are looking for the Afghan army and police to take more responsibility at a time when Taliban forces are in a position of strength in the countryside though are unable to hold ground in cities.

Mr. Ainsworth, speaking after Mr. Karzai, said the concept of “reconciliation” has “long been a missing component” in the Afghan theater, but added that it must “go hand in hand” with a military victory in order to work properly.

The Munich security conference was once a cold-war confab but has shifted to take up new security issues in what is described today as a more dangerous and unstable world. Now, the annual conference regularly includes Russian representatives. A main outcome of the meeting this year was unanimity among American and Russian officials on the need to complete an upgraded START treaty and make drastic reductions in nuclear weapon stockpiles.

Last year the incoming Obama administration sent a bevy of top officials to Munich. This year, with some feeling in Washington that Europe has not been as forthcoming in help on Afghanistan as hoped, the US presence was smaller. National Security Adviser James Jones reiterated hope for more help in Afghanistan but did so without much sermonizing. The host of the summit, former German top diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, brought a slight chastising tone to the meeting, saying that for Europe there are “no more excuses” for inaction on problems like Afghanistan and Iran.

Sen. McCain on Sunday praised Obama’s Dec. 1 West Point speech on Afghanistan, saying it brought a shift in public opinion on the need to stay engaged. The “cost of failure” in Afghanistan, he said, “isn’t just jihadists in Pakistan...but sends a message that jihadists can defeat the US.” McCain cited Gen. Stanley McChrystal that while Taliban had gained significantly and NATO positions had “eroded” in recent years, that McChrystal “says the erosion of the situation has stopped.”

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