WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is mounting a “diplomatic surge” to end the war in Afghanistan even as military pressure is forcing Taliban insurgents to consider whether to break with al Qaeda, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday.
Clinton, in a speech on Afghanistan at the Asia Society, said the Taliban’s only option was to split from al Qaeda, accept the Afghan constitution and join peaceful dialogue on the country’s future.
“They cannot wait us out. They cannot defeat us. And they cannot escape this choice,” Clinton said in a speech that was broadcast live on the Internet.
Clinton repeated President Barack Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing some of the nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers in the war zone in July with the aim of completing the transition to Afghan responsibility by the end of 2014.
Some critics say the withdrawal target dates may encourage the Taliban to wait out the military offensive.
But Clinton said the military operation was increasingly matched by two “surges” — a civilian effort to bolster Afghanistan’s government and a diplomatic push to end the war.
“We are launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome that shatters the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, ends the insurgency and helps produce a stable Afghanistan and a peaceful region,” Clinton said.
“That would leave al Qaeda alone and on the run.”
Some analysts say the Taliban ultimately may be willing to drop al Qaeda but Taliban leaders have said no peace talks can happen while foreign troops are in the country and prospects for talks appear murky amid uncertain progress in the unpopular U.S-led war.
Clinton announced that veteran diplomat Marc Grossman would take over as the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, replacing Richard Holbrooke, who died in December.
Grossman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, will be charged with plotting the next U.S. moves in a war that started in 2001 when the United States invaded to topple the Taliban rulers who had harbored the al Qaeda organization responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
With newly empowered Republicans in Congress proposing sharp budget cuts to deal with the mounting U.S. deficit, Clinton said it was essential to maintain funding for Afghanistan’s civilian reconstruction.
“Retreating from the civilian side of the mission — as some funding proposals currently before Congress would do — would be a grave mistake,” she said.
Nearly 100 U.S. lawmakers, most of them President Obama’s Democrats, voted for a failed motion on Friday to wind down the war in Afghanistan by cutting spending on it from about $100 billion to just $10 billion.
The motion to slash spending for the increasingly unpopular war, thus forcing U.S. troops to come home, failed on a vote of 98-331 in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The top U.S. military officer warned this week that violence in Afghanistan will rise this year from the elevated levels of 2010 as the United States boosts pressure on insurgent groups.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House of Representatives committee that U.S. forces would see “tough and often costly” fighting as they seek to gain the advantage in Afghanistan, where the conflict already has cost the United States some $56 billion.
Civilian and military casualties hit record levels last year and more than 2,300 foreign soldiers have been killed since 2001. Nearly 500 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan last year.
U.S. officials have declined to specify the pace or scale of the troop drawdown but Clinton said the United States was on track with plans to transfer security responsibility to the government of President Hamid Karzai.
“That transition will be formally launched next month, with troops reductions starting in July based on conditions on the ground,” she said, adding it would end by the end of 2014.
Clinton said the diplomatic effort would encourage Taliban members to stop fighting and join Afghan-led political negotiations — although she stressed that they must renounce violence and al Qaeda and agree to respect both the constitution and human rights.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by John O'Callaghan, Philip Barbara and Bill Trott