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U.S., British generals lay out complex Afghan picture

LONDON (Reuters) - In the past two days, one U.S. and three British generals have laid out their thinking on Afghanistan, and in doing so have revealed just how complex and even muddled the effort to defeat the Taliban has become.

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The latest to speak out was Major General Nick Carter, who will shortly take over command of Britain’s 9,000 troops in south Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency remains fierce.

Carter said on Friday the U.S. and NATO-led coalition, with nearly 100,000 troops on the ground, most of them American, was running out of time, with the need to show success quickly eight years into a war that looks increasingly bogged down.

“I absolutely acknowledge that time is not on our side and we have got to show positive trends as quickly as we possibly can,” he told BBC radio. “We can’t be everywhere, so what we’ve got to do is focus on achievable directives.”

At the same time he said talking to the Taliban -- or at least moderate elements within the tribal, Pashtun-dominated movement -- might provide a way forward, putting the insurgency, which has intensified in the past two years, on the back foot.

“If we can talk to people then that may well be a much quicker solution than shooting them,” he said.

While those comments chimed to an extent with Graeme Lamb, a retired British lieutenant general sent to Afghanistan to try to mediate with elements of the Taliban, they didn’t go nearly as far as Lamb went in comments on Thursday.

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Also speaking to the BBC, Lamb appeared to back a policy of buying off moderate Taliban. A former commander in Iraq, he said a similar approach had worked with militants there. “I always said in Iraq, you can buy an insurgency if you have enough money,” he said. “These are local people who need to have a dialogue to understand why, and then they have the choice to have a better life.

“If somebody is on the wrong side of the wire and is inclined to come back then I have to set the conditions, or we have to set the conditions, whereby that young man comes back in, so he is not a pariah,” he said, hinting at payments. “It’s not a case of paying him a dollar and he’ll stop fighting for a month or two,” but about providing opportunities for employment and a better quality of life, he argued. “None of this is rocket science.”

“HARD AS IRAQ”

It may not be rocket science, but Britain’s most senior army officer, newly appointed General David Richards, made clear in his first major speech on Thursday that the formula for success was not there yet, even if the ingredients were.

Richards, a former NATO commander in Afghanistan who has worked closely with U.S. General David Petraeus, the man overseeing the Afghan effort from Washington, said Afghanistan was a long-haul war.

“The ingredients for success in Afghanistan are similar (to those in Iraq), but we have not yet confirmed the correct formula for that country,” he told diplomats and military chiefs at Chatham House, a foreign affairs think-tank.

Richards, who oversees both Carter and Lamb, may have the more nuanced view of what needs to happen in Afghanistan, but the ultimate decider may well be Petraeus, who sounded a more realist note about the prospects while speaking in London.

“The challenges in Afghanistan clearly are significant, but the stakes are also high,” he told military and security experts at the Policy Exchange, another think-tank.

“In truth it is I think accurate to observe that as in Iraq in 2007, everything in Afghanistan is hard, and it is hard all the time,” he said, acknowledging the view of General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that the situation is serious even if the mission is doable.

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