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Iran joins international group's talks on Afghan strategy

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 4:51 PM

ROME- Iran for the first time joined a U.S. and NATO-dominated coordinating group on Afghanistan on Monday, sending midlevel officials to participate in discussions here on coalition military and political strategy that included a closed-door report by Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Iran's presence, along with representatives from nearly a dozen other Muslim countries as well as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, "clearly shows this is not a Western or a NATO effort," said Michael Steiner, Germany's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who chaired the meeting. "It transcends geographic, religious and alliance boundaries."

Steiner said the Iranians watched Petraeus's PowerPoint presentation, doubtless their first U.S. military briefing, "with interest," but did not speak at the morning session. During political discussions later in the day, when the head of the Iranian delegation "told me he wanted to speak, I didn't know what he wanted to say," Steiner said.

Mohammad Ali Qanezadeh, director of Asian affairs at Iran's foreign ministry, called for a "holistic" approach in Afghanistan that included military, political and development aspects, according to Steiner's notes of the meeting. "I had the impression that he appreciated the transparency" of presentations by Petraeus, the top military commander in Afghanistan, and Mark Sedwill, NATO's top civilian representative there. "This doesn't mean they have to agree with everything," Steiner said of the Iranians. "Let's be realistic."

In one of the more effusive descriptions of the day, Obama administration representative Richard C. Holbrooke called the meeting a "living refutation of the clash of civilizations" cited by al-Qaeda and the Taliban propaganda.

The expansion of the former "special representatives" group into the newly named International Contact Group on Afghanistan came after a series of upbeat U.S. assessments of progress in Afghanistan in the lead-up to a NATO summit in November and the administration's strategy review scheduled for December.

Despite rising coalition casualties and falling public approval of the war, the tide has begun to turn, said Sedwill, who cited the arrival of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops this year, the increased tempo of U.S. Special Operations force attacks against Taliban commanders, and ongoing U.S. offensives in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

Having lost the initiative to the insurgents last year, he said, the goal was to regain it by the end of 2010. "We believe that we're on course to do that by the end of this year," Sedwill said.

At the summit, which President Obama is scheduled to attend, heads of government will be briefed on "likely candidates" for the first group of provinces to be transitioned from coalition to Afghan security control, beginning "in the first half of 2011," Sedwill said.

Obama has pledged to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops by July, and some NATO members have set deadlines for ending their combat missions in Afghanistan.

The summit will also agree on a "framework for a long-term strategic partnership" with Afghanistan that will extend beyond 2014, the date Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set for final withdrawal of coalition combat forces. The United States signed a similar agreement, outlining security and economic guarantees, with Iraq before the end of the combat mission there.

"We are fully committed" to taking control of the country, including security, said Karzai national security adviser Zalmay Rassoul, who headed the Afghan delegation. "But to succeed, we will need long-term commitment and support."

Sedwill emphasized that the coalition "will still have troops in Afghanistan after 2014" as trainers and advisers. But the hope, he said, is that by then the Taliban threat will be sufficiently reduced by combat and political reconciliation.

Participants in the Monday meeting were quick to caution that Tehran's participation had no bearing on U.S. and European efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear program. That and other issues, Holbrooke said, are "discussed elsewhere."

U.S. military and civilian officials have offered differing assessments on the role Iran has played in the war, at times accusing Tehran of providing weapons and training for insurgents there and promoting continuation of the conflict as a way of tying down U.S. troops and resources.

More often, officials have discounted any significant malign Iranian influence, emphasizing a common interest in Afghan stability and sympathizing with Shiite Iran's concerns about drug trafficking and refugee flows across its lengthy border with Sunni Afghanistan.

Regional cooperation on Afghanistan was a major pillar of the goals Obama outlined even before taking office., when political aides said he would reach out to all players in Afghanistan's neighborhood, including Iran.

But early efforts to involve Iran were quickly overshadowed by U.S.-Iranian enmity over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program and by conflicting policy voices within the political structure in Tehran, according to administration officials. And the Iranians turned down all invitations to participate.

Steiner, during a recent visit to Tehran, and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, during a meeting at the United Nations last month with his Iranian counterpart, urged Iran to send a delegation to the Rome.

Sedwill described recent reports of substantive negotiations with the Taliban as overblown, although he said that "channels of communication" have been established. "There are conversations between the Afghan government and some members of some groups, some very significant ones," he said.

Even within the three main insurgent groups - the Quetta Shura leadership of the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hezb-i-Islami - "there are distinctions," Sedwill said. "We simply don't know where this will go. . . . The offer is out there" for those who agree to the red lines, he said. "It's for them to determine whether they will come in as a group, as individuals or as a movement."

"Our expectation is that whosever it proceeds, it is likely to be factions and fragments, with groups of the [Quetta Shura] Taliban most likely. I think the Haqqani network is the least likely, given their ideology and connections." The Haqqani network is believed the most closely tied group to Pakistani intelligence.

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