U.S.: We'll talk only to Taliban who've cut ties with al Qaida

MUNICH, Germany — U.S. and NATO officials sought to clarify their approach to the Afghan war this weekend in the wake of a new strategy to engage the Taliban.

At a security conference in Munich, officials said the U.S. hasn't made "any direct contact" with the Taliban, and that any Taliban forces that "want to reconcile" must "sever ties with al Qaida." While the Obama administration is drafting a timeline for the withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning next year, its targets are conditional on "success," the officials said.

Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and British Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth offered the clarifications about allied policy at a meeting of 300 top diplomats in Munich a week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai got international support and funding in London for a policy known as "reconciliation and reintegration." That policy involves making payments to help recruit Taliban foot soldiers who aren't ideological allies of al Qaida.

Following the conference on Afghanistan's future in London on Jan. 28, Holbrooke criticized the media for what he called its obsession with reports that outgoing United Nations special envoy Kai Eide met in Dubai with mid-level Taliban leaders and others quoting retired Pakistani generals saying that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghanistan Taliban, is tired of war and wants peace.

Negotiating and conducting military operations aren't mutually exclusive, Holbrooke said, citing Bosnia and Vietnam, both places where he served as a U.S. diplomat. "Success in the military operations will affect whatever the decisions are," he said.

Holbrooke said the Obama administration isn't conducting talks with the Taliban, calling that a "red line" for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. However, he said, the U.S. doesn't control what UN officials may do, and he left open the possibility that ethnic Pashtuns, who make up a majority of Taliban forces but some of whom also are allies of U.S. and Afghan government forces, may act as intermediaries because "every Pashtun family has members" with Taliban ties.

In Munich, Karzai differentiated between "reconciliation," a "vast" concept that he said eventually would attract Taliban leaders, and "reintegration," which involves working with Afghan villages in an effort to "return to normalcy." U.S. military commanders are more comfortable with reintegration than they are with attempts to reconcile with top insurgent leaders.

Karzai said he's convening a "peace jirga" of Afghan elders this spring, and he added that neighboring Pakistan would take steps to avert the "radicalization" of young men. Karzai also said that engaging the Taliban won't work "without an atmosphere conducive to it."

British Defense Secretary Ainsworth, speaking after Karzai at the annual Verkunde security conference in Munich, said that "reconciliation" has "been a missing component" in the Afghan theater, but he added that it must "go hand-in-hand" with a military victory in order to work properly.

Afghan policy is a delicate topic for Western leaders whose publics have lost interest in the nearly nine-year fight and are looking for the Afghan army and police to assume more responsibility when Taliban forces remain strong in many areas of the countryside, although they're unable to hold ground in the cities.

Marquand is a Christian Science Monitor staff writer.


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