British official urges Afghanistan to negotiate with Taliban, other insurgents

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called Wednesday for early and substantive political negotiations between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban and other insurgent groups, saying that military successes will never be enough to end the war.

"The idea of political engagement with those who would directly or indirectly attack our troops is difficult," Miliband said. "But dialogue is not appeasement, and political space is not the same as veto power or domination."

"Now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement with as much vigor and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort," he said.

Miliband's remarks, made in a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, went far beyond statements by U.S. officials, who have said talks would be better held after the military balance shifts toward the international coalition and the insurgents have agreed to sever ties with al-Qaeda and lay down their arms.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in Kabul on Monday that the timing of political reconciliation "depends on the conditions on the ground in terms of when people, particularly the more senior commanders, realize that the odds against their success are no longer in their favor."

But Miliband suggested that talks could proceed even as fighting escalated and indicated that he agreed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that although "preconditions should set the terms of any eventual agreement, they should not prevent a dialogue from developing."

In the face of overwhelming domestic opposition to the presence of nearly 10,000 British troops in Afghanistan -- a tenth of the projected size of the U.S. force by this summer -- the British government has taken the lead in promoting a negotiated political settlement. Karzai has scheduled a peace "jirga," or conference, for all national groups, including the Taliban, at the end of April.

Miliband said the jirga offers a chance to reconfigure political representation in the Afghan government, initially apportioned at a conference organized by the West in Bonn, Germany, after the United States and Afghan allies overthrew the Taliban government in late 2001.

"It was right that the Taliban leaders were excluded from Bonn," Miliband said. "But other, more significant and legitimate groups were seriously underrepresented, most notably the various Pashtun confederations from which the Taliban draws its strength."

Although Pashtuns make up about 40 percent of the population, and Karzai is a Pashtun, Afghanistan's smaller ethnic groups play disproportionate roles in the government and the military.

Miliband said he supports U.S.-backed efforts to reintegrate low-level insurgent fighters into Afghan society. But without a comprehensive political settlement and Afghan government reforms, he said, "it will be hard to convince significant numbers of combatants that their interests will be better served by working with the government than by fighting against it."

Taliban leaders have publicly rejected a dialogue until foreign troops depart Afghanistan. But Miliband said he thought that they would be more amenable to negotiations backed by the United Nations and by other regional governments, whose concerns and differing interests in Afghanistan should be honestly acknowledged.

Afghanistan, he said, must take "the lead on regional engagement," including recognition of Pakistan's key role and the involvement of India, Iran, China and Russia.

Miliband's call came as Karzai began his first official visit to Pakistan since his reelection last year. Pakistan, whose rugged western mountains provide havens for al-Qaeda and various Taliban groups, wants a seat a the table for reconciliation negotiations. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said Wednesday that "the two countries need to speak the same language at international forums because both suffer from the same malaise, caused by the same mind-set of militancy and extremism," according to the state-owned Associated Press of Pakistan.

Before leaving for Pakistan, Karzai hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a one-day visit to Kabul. Iran has blamed the Western military presence in Afghanistan for the escalation of the war and called for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

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