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The Guardian/UK

Talks with Taliban The Only Way Forward in Afghanistan, says UK Commander

Britain urges allies to use diplomacy to end conflict •There will be no decisive victory, says brigadier

Richard Norton-Taylor

British soldiers of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force sit on top of their armoured vehicle at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province in August 2008. The top military commander in Afghanistan said in an interview Sunday the public should not expect "decisive military victory" there, only the reduction of the insurgency to manageable levels. (AFP/File/Shah Marai)

Britain is stepping up pressure for a political and diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan,
a move set in sharp relief yesterday by the commander of UK troops who
warned that the war against the Taliban was not going to be won.

The message is being delivered with increasing urgency by British military commanders, diplomats and intelligence officers, to Nato allies and governments in the region, the Guardian has learned.

not going to win this war," Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said
yesterday. "It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency
that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army. We
may well leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural

Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault
Brigade, which has just completed a six-month mission in southern
Afghanistan during which 32 of his soldiers were killed and 170
injured, said his forces had "taken the sting out of the Taliban for
2008". But he warned that the public should not expect "a decisive
military victory". It was necessary to "lower our expectations" and
accept it as unrealistic that multinational forces can entirely rid
Afghanistan of armed bands.

He said the aim should be to change
the nature of the debate in Afghanistan so that disputes were settled
by negotiation and not violence.

"If the Taliban were prepared
to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political
settlement, then that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes
insurgencies like this," Carleton-Smith said. "That shouldn't make
people uncomfortable."

Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan's defence minister, expressed disappointment at the comments.

Carleton-Smith's warnings were echoed by a senior defence source
yesterday, who said "the notion of winning and losing the decisive
battle does not exist". Carleton-Smith added that all the Nato-led
international military force could do in Afghanistan was provide the
"parameters of security".

The deepening concerns reflect what
British defence chiefs are saying privately. The conflict with the
Taliban has reached "stalemate", they say. They also express increasing
frustration with the weakness and corruption of President Hamid
Karzai's government in Kabul.

Britain has denied that it believes
the military campaign in Afghanistan is doomed to failure after the
French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported that Sherard Cowper-Coles, UK
ambassador to Kabul, told a French official that foreign troops added
to the country's problems.

The newspaper reported that
Cowper-Coles had said Afghanistan might best be "governed by an
acceptable dictator", that the American strategy was "destined to
fail", and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan was "part of
the problem, not the solution". The French foreign ministry said the
newspaper report did not "correspond at all with what we hear from our
British counterparts in our discussions on Afghanistan".

on his website on Friday, David Miliband, the foreign secretary,
described the report as "garbled" and insisted that Britain did not
support a Kabul dictatorship.

"The future of Afghanistan is not
about appointed dictators or foreign occupation, it is about building
Afghan capabilities with the confidence of the Afghan people," he

A Foreign Office official was reported to have described
the claim that Cowper-Coles advocated a dictatorship in Afghanistan as
"utter nonsense", and that the comments attributed to the ambassador
were likely to have been a distortion of what he had said in the

British officials are exasperated with the Karzai
administration, the slowness in building up a national army and
corruption in the Afghan police force.

Violence in Afghanistan has risen to its worst level since 2001, when US-led forces overthrew the Taliban.

agencies say the Taliban and associated groups are controlling more
territory and it is increasingly difficult to provide the population
with their humanitarian needs, let alone physical security.

months of indecision and attacking western diplomats and military
officials for approaching Taliban forces and their local commanders,
Karzai said last week he had asked the king of Saudi Arabia to mediate
in negotiations.


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