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Time to talk with the Taliban, governments say


From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

October 28, 2008

WASHINGTON — Talking to the Taliban – long dismissed as unthinkable – was endorsed Tuesday by senior envoys from the embattled governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan .

Even the Bush administration conceded it too was considering "reaching out" to reconcile with some elements of the doctrinaire Islamist movement that once harboured al-Qaeda.

The fundamental policy shift reflects a stark reality: The raging insurgency in
Afghanistan has proven the war may not be winnable militarily and that the resurgent Taliban may need to be included in any far-reaching peace.

The announcement that contacts would be sought with the Taliban came at the close of a two-day gathering of elders and prominent figures from both
Pakistan and Afghanistan .

"We agreed that contacts should be established with the opposition in both sides," said former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who led the Afghan delegation to the meeting in the
Pakistan capital of Islamabad .

One Taliban spokesman rejected the overture, setting the pullout of all foreign troops as a precondition for talks.

"We will not hold any dialogue while foreign troops commanded by the Americans are in our country," Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Reuters in a satellite telephone call from undisclosed location.

But the Taliban has many elements and some of its emissaries have already held preliminary talks with the
Kabul government.

Agreement, even vague and perhaps conditional agreement to talk to the Taliban, amounts to a significant policy shift in
Washington as well as Kabul .

"We realize that we have to reach out on some level, but I'm not able to announce anything today," President George W. Bush's spokeswoman Dana Perino said Tuesday. She confirmed a top-level policy review was under way.

"Whether or not some elements of the Taliban would renounce violence and extremism and work for the greater good of
Afghanistan remains to be seen," she added.

The possibility of peace negotiations follows news of clandestine meetings between emissaries from the Taliban and the President Hamid Karzai's government in
Kabul – hosted by Saudi Arabia , one of the few nations to recognized the ruthless Taliban régime that ruled Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001.

In recent months, Mr. Karzai's popularity has plunged, more than 60,000 foreign troops, including Canadians, have failed to quash the insurgency, and the Taliban has shown remarkable resiliency both in southern Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan which is also increasingly unstable.

Peace talks have become an increasingly attractive option as the military and economic efforts have failed to deliver either peace or prosperity.

"The fact is that they [the Afghan people] are sick and tired of war," said Humayun Hamidzada, a senior aide to President Karzai.

Canada 's position, once unambiguously opposed to talks with the Taliban, also softened markedly during the election campaign.

"How to bring about political reconciliation and who to talk to – these are decisions the Afghan government has to take," said Prime Minister Harper who has already pledged to pull Canadian troops out of action by 2011. Mr. Harper said talks didn't signal surrender. "That's very different than simply throwing down arms and letting the Taliban take over the country," he said.

But the newfound willingness to talk to the Taliban may present Sen. Barack Obama with a quandary if, as now seems likely, he wins next week's
U.S. presidential election.

Mr. Obama has been a hardliner on the war in
Afghanistan , vowing to deploy more troops and more aggressively conduct cross-border attacks into Pakistan where the Taliban has found sanctuary in remote and largely ungoverned Northwest Province . As recently as last week he said he would send a surge of tens of thousands of more U.S. soldiers to quell the raging Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan .

However, Mr. Obama is also on record supporting the general principle in international relations of holding talks, even with
U.S. enemies.

Despite the possibility of direct talks with at least some elements of the Taliban, a range of conflicting options remains.

The centralized approach arising out of joint talks convened by the just-completed meeting of Afghan and Pakistani envoys may prove unwieldy.

"The Taliban isn't a monolith," says Eric Rosenbach, executive-director for research,
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University . Rather it's a diffuse movement with local leaders often based on tribal structures.

Mr. Rosenbach said talking to the Taliban might best be done at that local level, just as the successful American effort to enlist Sunni tribes in
Iraq was vital to quelling the insurgency there.

But driving a wedge between the Taliban and al-Qaeda may be far more difficult because of the long-standing links between the two in the borderlands between
Afghanistan and Pakistan .

Saudi Arabia hosted the first, indirect contacts last month when a groups of former Taliban officials met with envoys connected to Mr. Karzai's government. The Taliban also condemned those talks.

Pressure to talk to the Taliban has increased since some senior foreign military commanders in
Afghanistan have said the counter-insurgency was military un-winnable.

U.S. General David Petraeus, architect of the successful surge and counter-insurgency strategy in
Iraq and now overall commander of all U.S. forces in Central Asia and the Middle East , has also endorsed talking to the Taliban.

"You've got to set things up. You've got to know who you're talking to. You've got to have your objectives straight – all the rest of this stuff," he said. "But I do think you have to talk to enemies."

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