U.S. says Afghan war comments "defeatist"

KABUL Tue Oct 7, 2008 4:00pm EDT

Women in burqas walk behind a German Bundeswehr army gunner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) staying atop of his 'Fuchs' armoured personel carrier during a mission in Taloqan, west of Kunduz, October 5, 2008. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Women in burqas walk behind a German Bundeswehr army gunner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) staying atop of his 'Fuchs' armoured personel carrier during a mission in Taloqan, west of Kunduz, October 5, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

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KABUL (Reuters) - Britain's military commander and ambassador in Afghanistan are being "defeatist" by thinking the war cannot be won, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, as Washington seeks more troops for the conflict that started exactly seven years ago.

The comments by the officials from Britain, a key ally to the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, were echoed by the top United Nations official in Kabul, who said success was only possible through dialogue and other political efforts.

After the invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 to oust the fundamentalist Taliban government in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States, security has deteriorated markedly over the past two years.

"While we face significant challenges in Afghanistan, there certainly is no reason to be defeatist or to underestimate the opportunities to be successful in the long run," Gates said on Monday on his way to Europe to meet defense ministers.

Washington is reviewing its Afghan strategy in a similar way to the 2006 reappraisal of its Iraq policy that led to a "surge" of 30,000 troops and helped pull the country back from the brink of civil war.

Gates said part of the solution in Afghanistan would be negotiating with members of the Taliban willing to work with the government in Kabul. He compared that to reconciliation efforts in Iraq, where tribal leaders have switched sides to fight the insurgency and al Qaeda.

"What we have seen in Iraq applies in Afghanistan," Gates said of the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban.

"Part of the solution is strengthening the Afghan security forces. Part of the solution is reconciliation with people who are willing to work with the Afghan government."

Talk of negotiating with the Taliban also featured in the comments by the British commander and the U.N. official.

"What we need most of all is a political surge, more political energy," Kai Eide, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, told a news conference on Monday. "We all know that we cannot win it militarily. It has to be won through political means. That means political engagement."

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The Taliban have repeatedly rejected the idea of talks unless all 70,000 foreign troops leave the country.

"As we said before, as long as the invader forces are in Afghanistan, we won't participate in any negotiations," Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told the Pakistan-based Afghan news agency, AIP.

He also denied reports that negotiations had taken place between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Saudi Arabia.

The British commander, Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, told the Sunday Times the war against the Taliban could not be won and that the goal was to shrink the insurgency so it was no longer a strategic threat and could be dealt with by the Afghan army.

If the Taliban were willing to talk, he said, that might be "precisely the sort of progress" needed to end the insurgency.

Britain's ambassador to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, saw an "acceptable dictator" as the best solution, with a troop surge only creating more targets for the Taliban, according to parts of a diplomatic cable published in a French newspaper.

In another sign of shifting opinion, Germany said it will no longer provide troops from its KSK special forces to support U.S.-led counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan.

The U.S. general commanding NATO forces in the country said last month he needed three more brigades -- possibly around 15,000 troops -- on top of an extra 4,000 soldiers due to arrive in January.

Faced with reluctance of some of its European allies to send more troops, Washington has asked Japan and NATO countries to help foot the $17-billion bill to build up the Afghan army.

The Afghan Defense Ministry says the cost of one foreign soldier in Afghanistan is equal to more than 60 Afghan troops.

Washington's review of its Afghanistan policy has been characterized as a serious study of current thinking. But U.S. officials concede it will probably yield only recommendations for the next president -- either Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama -- who will take office in January.

(Kristin Roberts reported from a U.S. military aircraft)

(Writing by John O'Callaghan; Editing by Chris Wilson)

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