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Warning to US on talks with Taliban: Think-tank

Talking to insurgents to try to restore some stability to Afghanistan is an old tactic that has failed badly in the past, a leading international think-tank said Friday in a warning to Washington.

world Updated: Mar 13, 2009 10:23 IST

Talking to insurgents to try to restore some stability to Afghanistan is an old tactic that has failed badly in the past, a leading international think-tank said Friday in a warning to Washington.

US President Barack Obama has floated the idea of talking to less extreme elements within the Taliban, whose hardline regime was ousted in 2001 after a US-led invasion, as part of a new strategy in the Afghan war. But the International Crisis Group said the possibility of negotiating with insurgents willing to stop fighting should be handled with great caution.

Previous peace deals with militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan "enhanced the power and activities of violent insurgents, while doing nothing to build sustainable institutions," the non-governmental group said in a report. "While agreement may be reached not to attack Afghan or Pakistani forces, violence then tends to be directed at others, mostly unarmed civilians, until agreements break down and insurgents once again target security institutions."

Instead, it argued, what is needed is the creation of a solid state able to impose rule of law and win over Afghans weary of war. Since the invasion of late 2001, the number of NATO-led and US soldiers in Afghanistan has risen to some 70,000, yet the nation is still ravaged by daily unrest, notably in the south.

With security at its weakest, Obama has approved the deployment of 17,000 extra troops to Afghanistan and urged other NATO nations to contribute more to the effort. The Brussels-based ICG admitted there were no easy options, saying that in taking on "the forces of violent global jihadism" -- Al-Qaida and the Taliban -- "we know now what not to do."

"Knowing what to do, and how to do it, is harder."

One proposed option -- withdrawing the foreign troops supporting the Kabul government -- would return Afghanistan to chaos and the control of extremists seen in the 1990s, it argued. While the public were disillusioned with the troops, they were more afraid of what would happen if they left.

The use of air power alone against insurgents and terrorist bases had not been successful either, the ICG went on.

It also warned against moves in Afghanistan to arm villagers so they could take charge of their own security, saying that this would only worsen ethnic tensions and violence.

Other failed strategies that had been tried at least once in the past two decades were focusing on regional solutions and strong ethnic Pashtun leaders, instead of developing a strong democratic base, it said. There were no short-term solutions and Afghanistan had to be built into a resilient state with robust institutions, including the army and police.

It added: "Only when citizens perceive the state as legitimate and capable of delivering security, good governance and (the) rule of law will Afghans be able to resist jihadi pressures and overtures."

The ICG, a leading source of advice on the prevention of deadly conflict, said that while the Taliban may have made gains, they enjoyed little support among a public tired of war. It also noted that its "leadership does not command a significant standing army; indeed, the Taliban is a disparate network of groups using the name as they pursue different agendas."

At the same time, however, a narrow focus on confronting militants through aggressive military action had "not only failed to reduce religious extremism, but fuelled local discontent and violence."

Top US military and diplomatic officials briefed key senators Thursday in Washington on the thinking behind a revised Afghanistan strategy which Obama's administration is expected to announce within weeks.

Meanwhile, a high-level ministerial conference on Afghanistan's future is set for The Hague on March 31, which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to attend. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates earlier this week said many Taliban "may be able to be wooed away," but that any political reconciliation must be under terms set by the Kabul government.

First Published: Mar 13, 2009 10:10 IST