Is US policy in Afghanistan a contradiction?

 The latest US catchphrase in the decade-long Afghan war may be "fight, talk, build", but analysts ask if it is a fundamental contradiction, or can battle offensives push the Taliban to the negotiating table?

With NATO combat troops due to leave in 2014, the need to find a settlement in Afghanistan is becoming ever more urgent, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week admitted the United States had met the Haqqani network.

The Taliban faction is singled out as America's most potent enemy in eastern Afghanistan, and since the talks in the summer the US has blamed it for attacks including a 19-hour siege in Kabul that targeted Washington's embassy.

Clinton herself acknowledged an apparent discrepancy in the US approach during her visit to Pakistan, saying Washington plans to continue the ground fight while simultaneously trying to talk to insurgents.

"I will certainly admit that much of what we see that needs to be done in the region may, at first, appear inherently contradictory," she said in a meeting with business and civil society leaders in Islamabad.

"But it has been our experience over many years that unfortunately, it is both, simultaneously, that will convince some to come to negotiations and will remove others who are totally opposed to peace." she said.

The question is, will it work? And on that, most analysts are at best divided and at worst dismissive, believing that after 10 years the Americans still have no answers for ending the war.

"The thing I found important in what Hillary Clinton said is that she doesn't rule out a political solution with the insurgents and I think that's the right thing to do," said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

He believes there should be exploratory talks but disagrees that hardliners can be bombed into talking.

"I'm not convinced the Taliban can be beaten and weakened to the negotiating table. I think it will make them more defiant," he said.

Early hopes of progress towards peace were derailed on September 20 when a purported Taliban emissary wearing a bomb in his turban assassinated the Afghan government's pointman for talks, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Afghan and US forces are now waging a "major operation" designed to squeeze the Haqqanis and other Taliban insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, and Clinton called on Pakistan to step up pressure on its side of the frontier.

But with NATO-led forces and the UN offering different estimates about the level of violence in Afghanistan, it is difficult to assess whether increased military operations are having the desired effect.

Pakistan -- which arranged the US-Haqqani meeting -- has refused to take on the Haqqanis, who operate on both sides of the border, militarily.

Few in the region believe the Americans know how to end a war that has killed thousands of people and dragged on far longer than anyone imagined when the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

"They're scrapping around, I would say," said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies.

With federal elections held in the United States every two years, he told AFP: "This problem makes a coherent, long-term strategy very difficult for Obama, for any president for that matter."

Wadir Safi, a political science lecturer at Kabul University, warned that Rabbani's murder underscored the need for an "impartial commission more acceptable to the armed opposition".

Another complication, said Ruttig, was lack of consensus on a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan, given opposition in the Tajik and Uzbek-dominated north to negotiations with the Taliban who are blamed for Rabbani's murder.

"The Taliban might not be ready to accept a pluralist Afghanistan -- that's what we need to find out," he said, suggesting that an undeclared ceasefire may be a better way to test Taliban reaction.

"The US should try not to humiliate them," Ruttig added.

AFP

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