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Britain Backs More Dialogue With Taliban

An arrested Taliban fighter in northern Afghanistan in January 2002
LONDON (Reuters) -- Britain has said it supports more efforts to talk to hard-line insurgents fighting in Afghanistan, saying those who turn away from violence should be offered a chance to become part of the political process.

International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, visiting the Afghan province of Helmand where the majority of British combat troops are fighting, said more work is needed on a political process involving "elements within the Taliban."

"It is a difficult message for politicians -- to talk about the issues of reconciliation and reintegration when British troops are fighting the Taliban," Alexander told BBC radio on July 27.

"[But] is necessary to put military pressure on the Taliban while at the same time holding out the prospect that there can be a political process...whereby those who are willing to renounce violence can find a different path."

Britain is locked in a major military offensive in parts of volatile Helmand Province in south Afghanistan as part of Operation Panther's Claw alongside a major U.S. offensive launched this month.

At least 20 British soldiers have been killed in July, taking the total death toll in the war to 189, 10 more than during the Iraq war and the worst battlefield casualties suffered by the British military since the 1980s Falklands War.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband echoed Alexander's comments, writing in the "Financial Times" that any Afghan political strategy should bring in "conservative Pashtuns" and separate them from "the hard-line Taliban, who must be pursued relentlessly."

"The reintegration of former Taliban requires offering bigger incentives to switch sides and stay out of trouble, alongside tougher action against those who refuse," he wrote.

The comments came as Afghanistan said it had struck a ceasefire deal with Taliban insurgents in a remote province in the northwest -- the first move of its kind amid an escalation of violence ahead of elections next month.

Alexander said there were those within the Taliban "who are irreconcilable, because they have chosen a path of violence," but stressed there were also "elements within the Taliban force who have chosen that path because of desperation."

Britain, he said, supported Afghan government efforts "to engage and draw over those who are willing to leave the course of violence, accept the Afghan constitution and become part of a broader political process."