INTERVIEW-Holbrooke: reformed Taliban in Afghan govt not wrong

Sun Jun 6, 2010 3:51pm EDT

* No clear-cut military victory seen in Afghanistan

* International participation in civilian efforts growing

By Sonya Hepinstall

MADRID, June 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. diplomat in charge of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs said Washington accepted that a final political solution in Afghanistan could involve reformed Taliban in the government if certain "red lines" were respected.

Richard Holbrooke said the peace jirga in Kabul, in which the Afghan president was given a mandate to negotiate with the insurgents, was an important step in efforts to "reach out" to the Taliban and said the United States supported that effort. [ID:nSGE65307O]

Asked whether that support extended to even top leaders, such as supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, one of the world's most wanted men, he told Reuters on Sunday:

"Let me be clear on one thing, everybody understands that this war will not end in a clear-cut military victory. It's not going to end on the deck of a battleship like World War Two, or Dayton, Ohio, like the Bosnian war," Holbrooke said.

"It's going to have some different ending from that, some form of political settlements are necessary ... you can't have a settlement with al Qaeda, you can't talk to them, you can't negotiate with them, it's out of the question. But it is possible to talk to Taliban leaders."

In Madrid for an international conference to discuss non-military ways to help end the Afghan conflict, Holbrooke said if a member of the Taliban repudiated al Qaeda, laid down his arms and worked within the political system to join the government, "there's nothing wrong with that".

"The door is open and this jirga was a benchmark event on the road to the effort toward reconciliation," he said, but did not specifically mention the leadership.

Washington has been wary of overtures to senior Taliban leaders who sheltered al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks, as opposed to the "reintegration" of the insurgency's foot soldiers.



MADRID MEETING

Holbrooke said the meeting on Monday of special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which would continue the discussion started in the jirga, was the biggest such gathering involving officials from more than 30 countries and organisations.

He said the growing level of participation, particularly from the Islamic world, in the group's regular meetings was a stark contrast to the "pretty messy situation" inherited by the administration of President Barack Obama.

"I would like to say ... that in my own personal view President Obama's Cairo speech was a real breakthrough, and since then it's been more and more productive to reach out to our friends (in the Islamic world)," Holbrooke said.

In Cairo one year ago, Obama pledged to do more to boost economic development and bolster U.S. business ties with the Muslim world.

Obama's predecessor George W. Bush has been widely criticised by Muslims for the perception that his administration viewed them mostly through the lens of terrorism.

Nearly 1,600 Afghan tribal elders and religious leaders on Friday handed President Hamid Karzai the mandate to open negotiations with the insurgents who have fought tens of thousands of NATO forces and the Afghan army to a bloody stalemate following the U.S.-led invasion to retaliate for Sept. 11.

There were few signs that the Taliban, who have dismissed the jirga as a phoney American-inspired show and were not invited to the event, were ready to respond to the peace offer.

The Taliban say they want the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country before any negotiations can begin.

Militants attacked the opening of the jirga with rockets and gunfire just as Karzai was speaking on Wednesday and on Sunday, the country's interior minister and head of intelligence resigned to take responsibility for the lapse in security.

Moves to explore a negotiated settlement of the conflict have gathered pace since Obama announced that Washington will begin withdrawing troops from July 2011.

Holbrooke said it was understandable that after nine years, many people were frustrated with the lack of progress against the insurgency in Afghanistan, but argued with those who said the war was unwinnable.

"What do they mean by win? We don't use the word win, we use the word succeed," he said.

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