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Change in US Strategy in Afghanistan?


The war in Afghanistan will be one of the top priorities of President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office in January, and already there are calls by some South Asia experts for a dramatic change in U.S. strategy. They say a new strategy should include efforts to open negotiations with the Taliban - even if the militant's hardline faction refuses to talk. VOA's Ravi Khanna reports.

NATO forces continue their assault on Taliban positions in Afghanistan's Kunar province - the latest offensive to crush the resurgent militants. The Taliban has intensified its drive against NATO and Afghan government forces.

At the Bravo Battery-16 artillery unit, U.S. soldier Joshua Frank says it is time for a change.

"We need, definitely need some change," Frank said. "So a fresh guy, fresh start would be good."

South Asia expert Steve Coll at the New America Foundation underscores the need for a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

"And it needs to reemphasize political and economic development aid," Coll said. "As well as regional diplomatic negotiations."

General David Petraeus, who as U.S. Central Command Chief now oversees American operations in Afghanistan, has indicated he favors pursuing an Afghan government-led reconciliation effort with the Taliban. Such a move would include reconciliation with Taliban insurgents both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A report in the Washington Post says U.S. military officials believe renegade Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other rebel leaders might be persuaded to stop fighting in exchange for money and greater political influence. Such tactics were used with some success in Iraq, and the report says the U.S. military is considering doing the same in Afghanistan.

The reassessment comes as Afghanistan prepares for elections next year.

"The new strategy that the U.S. has started to develop, which the next U.S. president will inherit," Coll said. "Will be rooted in the desire to have successful elections and to adopt an approach to Afghanistan that will emphasize politics over military solutions."

But the Taliban has said repeatedly it will not talk with the Afghan government until all foreign troops leave the country.

Also, Pakistani newspapers have recently quoted hard-line Taliban leaders as warning that Washington is trying to divide them. They reportedly have vowed never to break up their alliance with al-Qaida.

Stephen Cohen at the Brookings Institution says there should be no reconciliation talks unless this alliance is severed -- though he acknowledges such a move is unlikely.

"I think, in fact, the Taliban are still dependent on al-Qaida, have a close relationship with al-Qaida and the groups that do directly threaten the U.S.," Cohen said.

But others say a U.S. offer to talk to the Taliban, even if the militants are reluctant, is a good strategy. Author and Pakistan expert Shuja Nawaz says the key is to isolate the hardliners.

"Changing the nature of the militancy," Nawaz said. "And isolating the few that are now saying that they will not talk."

And this opportunity may come over the issue of the upcoming elections.

"To divide the Taliban over the question of whether or not to participate in electoral politics," Coll stated. "That would be a part of a successful strategy potentially with the elections in mind."

Meanwhile, General Petraeus was in Pakistan and Afghanistan this week to assess the situations there. Washington hopes the CENTCOM chief can do for Afghanistan what he did in Iraq, where he is credited with dramatically reducing violence while in command of U.S. forces.

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