U.S. wants Afghanistan "exit strategy", meets NATO

BRUSSELS Mon Mar 23, 2009 10:53pm IST

CBS correspondent Steve Kroft (L) interviews President Barack Obama in the White House March 20, 2009 for the March 22 airing of 60 Minutes.  REUTERS/Aaron Tomlinson-CBS News/60 Minutes/Handout

CBS correspondent Steve Kroft (L) interviews President Barack Obama in the White House March 20, 2009 for the March 22 airing of 60 Minutes.

Credit: Reuters/Aaron Tomlinson-CBS News/60 Minutes/Handout

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday it had found an encouraging symmetry of views with its NATO and EU allies after outlining a strategy review meant to end a stalemate in Afghanistan.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke discussed the review with Washington's NATO and EU allies after President Barack Obama said it would contain an exit strategy and greater emphasis on economic development.

Holbrooke stressed the need for a regional approach to the Afghan problem, including Pakistan, and of stepping up both civilian and military efforts, a NATO spokesman said.

He also underlined the importance of plans for a significant boost in size of the Afghan police force.

"I found a very encouraging symmetry of views between our NATO allies and other troop-contributing countries and the United States," Holbrooke told reporters after the meeting in Brussels.

"They put a heavy emphasis on increasing the police, the size of the police in Afghanistan," he said.

With violence rising ahead of elections in August, Obama has already committed an extra 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, but on Sunday he said military force alone would not end the war.

"What we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems," he said in an interview with CBS TV's "60 minutes".

"So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's got to be an exit strategy ... There's got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."

Holbrooke, who met NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Monday before briefing the 26 alliance ambassadors, said the review would be completed "soon".

He told the BBC in an interview that the priority would be dealing with the situation in tribal regions along the border with Pakistan, which have been a haven for militants.

"That is the main message we want to get across. You cannot separate Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.

MORE TROOPS, MORE RESOURCES, MORE ATTENTION

He also criticised the previous Bush administration for neglecting Afghanistan and vowed "more troops, more resources, more high-level attention".

"I can't promise you a timetable or guaranteed success in an area this difficult," he said. "But I can guarantee you that this administration is going to do everything it can to succeed in one of the most difficult situations in the world."

Some analysts say Washington is going to have to engage in dialogue with some Taliban elements, a point Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have conceded this month. However, in Afghanistan, other experts have dismissed that idea.

And Taliban-led insurgents such as the Haqqani network, which has admitted carrying out some of the most deadly attacks on civilians and foreign troops in Afghanistan, dismiss the dialogue proposals as a trick to weaken and divide militants.

In an interview with Reuters on Monday Sirajuddin Haqqani said no Taliban would engage with Washington or Kabul.

The deployment of 17,000 additional U.S. troops, on top of the 38,000 already serving there, is meant to help subdue a resurgent Taliban and stabilise the country.

Other countries have about 30,000 soldiers helping the Kabul government under NATO and U.S. command, but have mostly been reluctant to commit more forces.

NATO-led forces deployed in southern and eastern Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan are overstretched and many of the new U.S. troops will be sent to these areas to reinforce efforts to stem insurgent activity on the porous Afghan-Pakistan border.

On Monday, eight policemen were killed by Taliban insurgents while they were on patrol in southern Kandahar province in a district just inside the Afghan border with Pakistan, the Interior Ministry said.

BIG CHALLENGE

Obama said the "destabilising border" between Afghanistan and Pakistan was a big military challenge. Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding out there using the remote region as a staging ground for attacks in Afghanistan.

"This is going to be a tough nut to crack. But it is not acceptable for us to simply sit back and let safe havens of terrorists plan and plot," he said.

U.S. air strikes on militants on the Pakistan side of the border have raised tensions with Islamabad, and the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians caught in the conflict have turned ordinary people against foreign forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

The issue has flared again, with Afghan officials launching an investigation into a new U.S. military operation in Kunduz which killed five Afghans that police officials said were civilians, but U.S. forces insisted were militants.

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