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Miliband Calls Afghan Conference A 'Decisive Moment'

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- Efforts to stabilize Afghanistan have reached a decisive moment, Britain's foreign secretary has said, with a conference in London this week critical to shaping strategy in the eight-year war.

Speaking as European Union foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss issues including Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran, David Miliband said the January 28 Afghan conference must show civilian and military operations can work together.

"No one pretends that conferences win wars, but conferences are important to changing the course of military struggles," Miliband told reporters as he arrived in Brussels.

"The combination of a new Afghan government and a new focus of the international military and civilian efforts means that this is going to be a decisive period in the Afghan campaign.

"There's a new government in Kabul, there's a new military strategy, there's a new civilian's very important that we get the political strategy right at this time." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the conference late last year in the hope of galvanising international efforts to secure Afghanistan, including sending more troops to combat a widening Taliban-led insurgency.

The United States has committed 30,000 more troops to the conflict, and Britain and other nations have also sent reinforcements to Afghanistan's turbulent south and east, raising the total U.S.- and NATO-led force to more than 100,000.

But as well as troops, there is a renewed focus on providing civilian aid and development to try to prevent the Afghan people turning to the insurgency, and to support an Afghan government that is battling corruption and struggling for authority.

"There is no military solution," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters as he arrived in Brussels.

"There has to be building up of the governance and the civilian infrastructure of the country. That will take money and time, commodities in spare supply in the politics of the West."

President Hamid Karzai will join NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Brown, Miliband, and senior officials from the United States, Russia, and other parties for the January 28 conference.

'Reintegrate Taliban'

U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, said in comments published today that he believed the increase in troops was enough to weaken the Taliban and force its leaders into peace discussions.

Talking to the Taliban -- or what U.S. General David Petraeus, McChrystal's boss, has called "reintegration" -- is expected to form a large part of discussions in London.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters today that he saw reintegration of Taliban fighters as a critical element in any strategy to stabilise the country, and said there needed to be a means of support for those who down weapons.

"The military question is important but will not lead alone to a solution," said Westerwelle, whose country is under pressure to increase its contribution of troops in Afghanistan.

"It is crucial that we reintegrate the followers who support the Taliban because of economic reasons. This is a completely new approach," he said.

Miliband, who will chair the conference and holds talks with Karzai in Turkey on January 26 in preparation for the meeting, said Taliban reintegration was a critical plank in the new strategy.

"The absolutely clear message from the military as well as from the civilian side is that the resolution in Afghanistan needs a political settlement," he said.