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Kabul faces broad push to take military lead

October 18, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome and Matthew Green in Islamabad, Published: October 18 2010

Envoys from more than 40 countries and international organisations have launched an expanded diplomatic push for Kabul to take over the leadership of military operations in Afghanistan from Nato.

The special representatives from 39 governments – including Iran’s for the first time – and four international organisations have also endorsed Kabul’s attempts to negotiate directly with the Taliban.

“We are singing from the same song-sheet,” Michael Steiner, Germany’s envoy, told reporters in Rome during day-long talks on Monday, stressing that Iran was welcome at the table and that participants included 10 Islamic countries.

Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy, said the meeting heard “a very encouraging” report from General David Petraeus, commander of the 150,000-strong US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, focused on the “transition” period of handing over military command to the Afghan government and pulling out of combat operations from 2011 to the end of 2014.

Nato allies want to hand over responsibility for securing the country to Afghan security forces as rapidly as possible, in an effort to regain waning public support for the mission. The US troop surge this year has triggered a big increase in insurgent violence, the Kabul government has failed to implement reforms demanded by the west and doubts linger about the quality of the Afghan army and police.

Mr Holbrooke said the US had “no problem” with Iran attending the talks, which would focus exclusively on Afghanistan. He said Iran, with its long common border and facing an influx of drugs from Afghanistan, had an important role to play in a peaceful settlement.

The Rome meeting was preparation for a Nato summit to be held in Lisbon next month. Mr Holbrooke said the summit would not lay out a timetable for specific provinces to be handed over to Kabul’s military control. He emphasised that “transition” did not equal troop withdrawals.

Ignazio La Russa, Italy’s defence minister, said after talks on Saturday with Gen Petraeus that the Italian contingent could hand over the northwest city of Herat to Afghan command by the end of 2011 and then start pulling out combat troops.

Mr Holbrooke declined to talk about the level of Taliban participation in talks with President Hamid Karzai’s government or the nature of Nato’s facilitation of these first-stage contacts.

Gen Petraeus said in Brussels last week that international forces had granted safe passage to Taliban figures travelling to Kabul for talks.

The Rome meeting was held amid signs of increased diplomatic efforts to foster some form of political process to end the conflict. The US administration, in particular, appears increasingly willing to participate in supporting negotiations to tackle the insurgency in parallel with a stepped-up military push in Kandahar province.

Envoys in Rome on the one hand stressed that talks with the Taliban were an “Afghan-led” process. But they also laid out conditions for “reconciliation and integration” which included a laying down of arms, renunciation of ties with al-Qaeda, and respect of constitutional rights of minorities and women.

“There are clear red lines,” Mr Holbrooke said.

In recent weeks, the US has expanded a campaign of air strikes and special forces raids against militant commanders in Afghanistan and has escalated a controversial programme of drone strikes against Taliban fighters in neighbouring Pakistan.

US officials are also talking to counterparts in Pakistan to explore ways in which negotiations might be used to stabilise Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s civilian government has pledged to back a peaceful settlement of the conflict, though much will depend on the calculations made by its powerful and largely autonomous intelligence services. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate has long-standing links to Afghan insurgents it nurtured in the 1990s to counter Indian influence in the region and could play a crucial role in enabling or spoiling dialogue.

Diplomats caution that initial contacts being made between the Afghan government and insurgents are highly tentative and exploratory in nature, and liable to break down easily. Mr Karzai said last week that he was in contact with insurgents, but warned that substantive negotiations had yet to begin.

It is difficult to gauge the appetite of the Pakistan-based leadership of the Afghan Taliban or Haqqani insurgent network, which operates from North Waziristan, for talks. Some analysts warn that increased military pressure designed to encourage militant commanders to come to the table may provoke a backlash that will leave them less inclined to consider a peaceful settlement.

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