Nato anticipates talks with Taliban

A concerted effort to start talks between Taliban and British and United States envoys was initiated this week in a tactical change designed to achieve a breakthrough in the attritional eight-year conflict in Afghanistan.

Ministers and commanders on the ground believe they have created the right conditions to open a dialogue with “second-tier” local leaders now that the Taliban has been forced back in Helmand province.

They hope that Britain’s military presence in Helmand, strengthened significantly by the arrival of thousands of US troops, will encourage Taliban commanders to end the insurgency. There is even talk in London and Washington of a military “exit strategy”.

Speaking at the end of the five-week Operation Panther’s Claw, in which hundreds of British troops were reported to have cleared insurgents from a vital region in Helmand, Lieutenant-General Simon Mayall, deputy chief of defence staff, said: “It gives the Taliban ‘second tier’ room to reconnect with the government and this is absolutely at the heart of this operation.”

The second tier is important because it controls large numbers of Taliban fighters in Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan.

The “first tier” of Taliban commanders—hardliners around Mullah Omar—could not be expected to start talks in the foreseeable future.
The third tier—foot soldiers with no strong commitments—are not regarded as significant.

The change in strategy was revealed as the British Ministry of Defence announced that two more soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. Eleven British soldiers have been killed so far in Operation Panther’s Claw.

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, and Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, held out the prospect of reconciliation between the Afghan government and Taliban fighters who were prepared to renounce violence.

For more than a year British intelligence officers have been advocating and instigating contacts with Taliban commanders and their entourage. But their task has been particularly delicate, given the sensitivities of the Karzai administration in Kabul.

The situation has been complicated further by an influx of increasingly hardline and ideologically motivated fighters joining the Taliban and other insurgent groups from across the Pakistani border.

The fact that senior ministers and military commanders have seized on the apparent success of Operation Panther’s Claw to highlight the possibility of talks with the Taliban reflects their concern about the lack of progress in Nato’s counter-insurgency.

US priorities in Afghanistan will be spelled out in a briefing paper drawn up by General Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander in the country, to be handed to President Barack Obama this week.

He will emphasise the need to speed up the training of Afghan national army and security forces, according to defence sources.

He is also expected to ask for more troops from Nato allies.

British military commanders are drawing up contingency plans to increase the number of British forces to more than 10000 from the current 9000.—

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