LONDON (Reuters) - British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged Afghans on Wednesday to push energetically for a peace settlement with Taliban insurgents and said Afghanistan’s Neighbors must support such an agreement.
Miliband’s conciliatory comments, in a speech to be given in the United States later on Wednesday, reflect growing acceptance in the West that Taliban fighters who break ties to al Qaeda have a role to play in the country’s future.
“Now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement with as much vigor and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort,” Miliband said in the text of a speech he is due to give at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Afghanistan will never achieve a sustainable peace unless many more Afghans are inside the political system, and the Neighbors are onside with the political settlement,” he said.
Miliband said that within two to five years, it was realistic to hope for an Afghanistan “on an upward trajectory, still poor but with a just peace, with democracy and inclusive politics bedding down at all levels and with incomes growing.”
The British public is increasingly anxious about military losses in Afghanistan — six British soldiers have died there in the past 10 days, bringing the total to 272 since 2001.
The Labor government, which faces an uphill struggle to win an election due in the next few months, needs to show it has an exit strategy for its 9,500 troops in Afghanistan.
At a separate event in Boston on Tuesday night, Miliband said there was no longer a military solution for Afghanistan.
“The truth about an insurgency and a counterinsurgency is that it’s never ended militarily, it’s only ended politically,” he said at a Kennedy Library foreign affairs forum.
Still, military involvement from a broad coalition of nations remains crucial for now, Miliband said.
“If there wasn’t a significant international (military) component, I’m afraid there’s no question that the Afghan security forces will be rolled over ... and that Pakistan next door, a nuclear weapons state, would be significantly destabilized,” he said.
In the text of Wednesday’s speech, Miliband said a political settlement should involve “all of Afghanistan’s Neighbors as well as those parts of the insurgency willing permanently to sever ties with al Qaeda, give up their armed struggle and live within the Afghan constitutional framework.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai plans to convene a peace conference on April 29 to discuss efforts toward reconciliation with Taliban fighters and their leaders.
The Taliban have repeatedly turned down Karzai’s peace proposals, saying foreign troops should leave Afghanistan first, although some tentative “talks about talks” have taken place.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed hope for low-level defections but voiced skepticism about senior Taliban leaders laying down their arms as long as they think they can win the war.
NATO forces, strengthened by the first reinforcements from a planned U.S. surge of 30,000 troops, last month launched a major offensive in the Marjah area of southern Afghanistan — the biggest since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.
Additional reporting by Ros Krasny in Boston; editing by Noah Barkin