March 31, 2009 / 2:16 AM / in 10 years

U.S. holds out olive branch to non-violent Taliban

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The United States offered Taliban fighters who renounce violence in Afghanistan an “honorable form of reconciliation” on Tuesday as part of a revamped strategy to tackle a deepening insurgency.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a short statement before the start of a U.N.-backed conference on Afghanistan in The Hague March 31, 2009. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen

Traditional U.S. foe Iran, attending an international conference on Afghanistan, pledged help in tackling the huge opium trade in its neighbor but stressed it remained opposed to U.S. and other foreign troops there.

The conference in the Netherlands is a chance for NATO and other U.S. allies to consult on the Afghan strategy unveiled by President Barack Obama last week stressing the need to cooperate with regional players such as Iran, Pakistan, Russia and India.

“We must ... support efforts by the government of Afghanistan to separate the extremists of al Qaeda and the Taliban from those who have joined their ranks not out of conviction, but out of desperation,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the conference in The Hague.

“They should be offered an honorable form of reconciliation and reintegration into a peaceful society, if they are willing to abandon violence, break with al Qaeda, and support the constitution,” Clinton said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed Obama’s “fresh, strong and judicious leadership,” but said his government should take the lead in approaches to the Taliban.

“The policy of reconciliation ... can succeed only if carried out under the aegis of the national institutions of Afghanistan,” he warned.

Iran, which sent Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh to the talks, promised it would help fight drugs trafficking and in reconstruction projects.

“The presence of foreign forces has not improved things in the country and it seems that an increase in the number of foreign forces will prove ineffective too,” Akhoundzadeh said.

But he added: “Iran is fully prepared to participate in the projects aimed at combating drug trafficking and the plans in line with developing and reconstructing Afghanistan.”

RUSSIA READY

Clinton and Akhoundzadeh were not due to hold substantive talks in the Hague, but not expected to avoid contact either.

Their joint presence was an easing the policy of the former Bush administration which stuck to a years-long stand-off over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West suspects Iran wants a cover for the atom bomb, an aspiration it denies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled a greater readiness by Moscow to help reconstruct Afghanistan.

“We need to combine the antiterrorist measures with the socio-economic measures to rebuild Afghanistan and in future Russia is quite ready to participate in that effort,” he said.

Nearly eight years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, more than 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops are still there battling a growing insurgency, which is also spreading its influence in Pakistan.

The Pakistani Taliban said on Tuesday they had carried out an attack which killed eight cadets in a police academy in the Pakistani city, Lahore.

It was the second attack in Lahore this month after gunmen targeted the Sri Lankan cricket team, underscoring how far the insurgency is spreading into the heartland of Pakistan.

Since taking office in January, Obama has ordered 17,000 extra troops to Afghanistan to tackle violence ahead of elections, and a further 4,000 to help train the army.

Slideshow (7 Images)

The new U.S. administration has said it will end the megaphone diplomacy used by Washington in the Bush years to cajole more troops out of often reluctant allies, but is urging them to commit more aid and civilian support.

“President Obama has introduced a new focus, one that we welcome very much,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country came under most pressure to step up its contribution to the counter-insurgency effort.

“We shall have to reinforce our civilian presence. The military presence will remain necessary and in an election year we can expect more tensions,” he said of August elections.

Additional reporting by Bill Maclean and Aaron Gray-Block; Writing by Mark John and Reed Stevenson; Editing by Myra MacDonald

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