WASHINGTON The frontrunner in Afghanistan's presidential election said on Thursday he saw some similarities between his country's situation and violence-plagued Iraq that showed the need for a "responsible" U.S. military exit strategy.
Abdullah Abdullah was asked in a teleconference with a Washington think-tank whether he was concerned about the U.S. "zero option" for Afghanistan and whether he would reopen discussions with Washington about its plan to withdraw all its troops from the country by the end of 2016.
"I am not in a position to judge it at this stage," he said in response to a question from Kai Eide, the former U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, who asked if Abdullah thought the withdrawal should be based on security conditions.
"But one thing I would emphasize is that hopefully 'zero option' will not mean zero cooperation."
Abdullah, who faces an election runoff on Saturday, reiterated that if elected, he plans to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States that has been blocked by the outgoing Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
He said he hoped this would enable security cooperation after 2016.
"There will be an opportunity. I don't know how much that opportunity is realistic from our part ... we cannot dictate from here the conditions," he said.
Asked whether he saw lessons from the insurgent violence in Iraq since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, Abdullah said: "There might be some common ingredients in both cases."
Karzai's failure to sign a BSA had done a lot of damage and "created shadow of uncertainty about the future," he said, while adding: "As far as the United States is concerned, one lesson out of it ... here also comes the issue of a responsible exit strategy. That is important."
U.S. President Barack Obama announced his Afghan troop withdrawal plan last month. On Thursday, he said he was looking at all options to help Iraq face down a growing insurgency from radical Islamists and did not rule out military strikes.
Abdullah recalled the chaos caused by the Soviet Union's late-1980s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the U.S. disengagement from the guerrilla war that had toppled the Moscow-backed government.
"(This) was one of the main reasons that led to the civil war here later on and al Qaeda taking roots here in our country and then the United States and the people suffered because it."
Abdullah said it was important for the future Afghan government to pursue a policy of reconciliation with Taliban insurgents and avoid sectarian or ethnic discrimination.
"If there is one lesson from what has happened in Iraq it is that the sectarian policies will not work anywhere. So building trust among the people will be important," he said.
Abdullah said his government would make "open and genuine efforts" for peace, but would not sacrifice citizens' rights. He also stressed the need to protect women's rights denied by the Taliban.
"Hopefully the other side which is fighting will also seize this moment," he said.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom)