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Obama looks for regional allies to stabilize Afghanistan

President Barack Obama appears set to pursue a regional diplomatic strategy as much as a military one to prevent Afghanistan and Pakistan from turning into new havens for anti-US militants.

world Updated: Jan 21, 2009 11:26 IST

President Barack Obama appears set to pursue a regional diplomatic strategy as much as a military one to prevent Afghanistan and Pakistan from turning into new havens for anti-US militants.

Despite his plans to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan to boost stability, the Obama administration seems to be heeding expert advice that no military solution is possible over the long term.

Hillary Clinton, Obama's pick for secretary of state, last week omitted mention of the idea of a military victory.

Appearing before a Senate confirmation hearing, Clinton spoke instead of "employing a broad strategy in Afghanistan that reduces threats to our safety and enhances the prospects of stability and peace.

"We will use all the elements of our power -- diplomacy, development, and defense -- to work with those in Afghanistan and Pakistan who want to root out Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other violent extremists," Clinton said.

Remnants of the hardline Taliban regime, which was toppled during the US-led invasion in late 2001 to drive out Al-Qaeda militants, are now waging an insurgency against the US-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

There are about 70,000 US and other foreign troops in the country fighting alongside Afghan security forces to quell the Taliban.

Acknowledging the need for broader support, Clinton said she was encouraged that the new Pakistani government understands that the extremists also threaten domestic stability, that "this is their fight, not just ours."

Clinton echoed comments from General David Petraeus, outgoing president George W. Bush's commander for the region, as well as senators and others who said that countries in the area need to be brought on board a solution.

A resolution requires "a regional approach ... that includes Pakistan, India the Central Asian states and even China and Russia, along with perhaps, at some point Iran," Petraeus said recently.

Francesc Vendrell, former European Union special representative for Afghanistan, told a conference here this month that a military solution was not possible in Afghanistan.

"The initial welcome (for the troops) is turning to impatience and even downright hostility," Vendrell said as civilian casualties in military operations strain ties.

He called for a way to reconcile the Afghan government and elements of the Taliban, which he and other experts believed can be separated from the most hard-core elements of the Taliban and from Al-Qaeda.

Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst writing in The Wall Street Journal, said there were already encouraging political signs.

"NATO and Afghan leaders are ... learning how to cooperate with tribal structures more effectively, and even to reconcile with some former insurgents when possible," he added.

Vendrell said that if a military "surge" is deployed, it must be part of a broader strategy that encompasses Pakistan, India and Iran, which he says has "legitimate national interests" in Afghanistan.

Despite US-Iranian antagonism, Shiite Muslim Iran shares the US fear of the Taliban's puritan Sunni Muslim strain of Islam.

In a bid to improve cooperation with Iran, Vendrell said, Washington should drop its opposition to a non-aggression pact between Kabul and Tehran as well as make clear it does not intend to set up long-term bases in Afghanistan.

Defusing India's and Pakistan's decades-old dispute over Kashmir is key to allowing Islamabad to turn its attention to Afghanistan, he added.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been wracked by violence since hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels have set up base there over the last few years.

First Published: Jan 21, 2009 11:24 IST