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U.S. Troop Increase, Apparent Openness To Talks May Indicate New Afghan Strategy

Is the United States prepared to speak to some elements of the Taliban?
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad has given his endorsement to reaching out to "elements of the Taliban who are reconcilable."

But to do so, he told CNN on December 21, the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition must be in a "much stronger position than they are."

This follows a recent announcement that the United States plans to send between 20,000 and 30,000 extra troops to the country's insurgency-plagued south and southeast by mid-2009.

Afghan political commentator Akbar Wardak says the announced troop surge and Khalilzad's indication that the United States may be ready to talk to Taliban moderates are coordinated measures intended to ensure that the Taliban goes into any future talks with reasonable demands and expectations.

Wardak also notes that recent media reports indicate the Taliban has considerably softened its once uncompromising approach.

"They are not demanding the withdrawal of foreign forces, but are now asking for a timetable for their withdrawal. Their second demand is that their fighters or the mujahedin should be given a role in the Afghan National Army," Wardak says.

"In my opinion, these two demands are acceptable to the Afghan government and Americans," he continues. "This leaves us with the issue that the Taliban do not recognize the current Afghan Constitution. If the Taliban were to accept the Afghan Constitution, it would absolutely pave the way for talks."

Competing Factions

Some Afghan observers have noted that negotiating with the Taliban poses difficulties because it cannot be considered a unified, coherent organization. The Taliban, they say, is clearly divided among different factions that sometime have competing agendas.

Most important, they say, is to understand the various factions' complex relationship with Al-Qaeda. Unlike many within the ranks of the Taliban, those with strong Al-Qaeda ties are primarily focused on a global jihad, making the idea of reaching a local accommodation with the Karzai administration and the West unthinkable.

Wardak says the importance of providing a secure environment for next year's Afghan presidential election also may be a major factor in the U.S. troop increase and apparent openness toward negotiation.

And taking into consideration the Taliban's recent military gains on the ground, Wardak says the time might be ripe for negotiation. "If we look at the situation in the region, Pakistan has problems with India and might get caught up there," he says. "This might prevent [elements in that country] from supporting the antigovernment elements in Afghanistan on a large scale.

Wardak adds that Saudi Arabia, the only other country besides Pakistan to recognize the Taliban regime that was toppled in late 2001, "is under great [international] pressure to curb or even stop the support for the Taliban from private sources as well as official quarters within the Saudi government."

The Taliban, meanwhile, has ridiculed the U.S. troop-increase announcement. In interviews with media, self-proclaimed Taliban spokesman Yosuf Ahmadi compared it to the Soviet troop surge in the 1980s that resulted in increased casualty counts -- and worked to the advantage of the mujahedin.

In Kabul, analyst Nasrullah Stankazai says that the past 30 years of fighting in his country have shown that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem.

"In societies plagued by extremism and terrorism," he says, "you need economic and social development" in order to move forward.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Asmatullah Sarwan and Ahmadullah Takal contributed to this report
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.