Defence Secretary endorses Taliban talks

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Defence Secretary Des Browne endorsed peace talks between Pakistan and Taliban militants on Wednesday despite concerns from Afghanistan that the talks will allow the Taliban to regroup and launch more attacks.

Defence Secretary Des Browne speaks during a news conference in Baghdad, March 13, 2008. REUTERS/Khalid Mohammed/Pool

Browne said Britain supported any moves that would encourage militants to put down their weapons and stop violence, and said Pakistan and Afghanistan needed to work together on problems with their border, much of which is controlled by Taliban insurgents.

He said reconciliation should be a part of any strategy, although it was clear some militants had no intention of putting down their weapons.

“But you can’t kill your way out of these sorts of campaigns,” Browne told journalists at Australia’s National Press Club on Wednesday.

Faced with a wave of suicide attacks, Pakistan has begun talks with Taliban militants who control much of the country’s 2,700 km (1,670 miles) mountain border with Afghanistan.

The Taliban, however, said it would fight in Afghanistan until all foreign troops were driven out of the country, and Afghanistan has expressed concerns about any peace deals.

Browne, in Australia for talks with Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, said sovereign countries had the right to welcome insurgents back into society if they agreed to obey the rule of law and recognise democratic governments.

“If people are prepared to give up violence, put down their weapons, accept and recognise legitimate and democratic government ... then the sovereign governments from both countries are entitled to say we will welcome you to become part of our society,” he said.

“That’s their privilege and right. And we in the United Kingdom will support them in doing that.”

Afghan forces, backed by more than 60,000 foreign troops, are engaged in daily battles with Taliban militants, mainly in Afghanistan’s south and east, the areas closest to the border with Pakistan.

Afghan officials have accused Pakistan of allowing the Taliban to use Pakistani territory as a safe haven and an area to regroup and plan further attacks.

Britain has about 7,800 troops in Afghanistan, based mainly in the Helmand province, as part of a NATO force of about 50,000 troops across the country.

Since 2001, when the United States led international forces to topple the Taliban regime, 97 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan.

Australia has about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, working alongside Dutch forces, including about 300 special forces engaged in missions to track down militants.

In his address to the National Press Club in Canberra, Browne described the military campaign in Afghanistan as a “genuine noble cause”, and said progress was being made in training Afghanistan’s army and police force.

But he said it would be “manifestly daft” to put a timeline on when foreign troops could leave Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is a challenge to the international community for a generation,” he said. “If we walk away, it will haunt us.”