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US Cautious on Afghan Outreach to Taliban

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday that the United States is open to the prospect of Afghan government peace talks with elements of the Taliban, but she advised Kabul officials to proceed cautiously. Clinton spoke in advance of another top-level White House meeting convened by President Obama on whether he should send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

The Obama administration is giving a cautious nod of approval to possible peace contacts between the Kabul government and Taliban factions, as it nears a decision on whether to add as many as 40,000 troops to the Afghan war effort.

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that the Afghan leader, newly sworn in to a second term in office, might invite Taliban elements and other militant opponents of the government to a Loya Jirga, or grand council meeting, aimed at bringing peace and reconciliation to the war-torn country.

At a press event with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Rumiana Zheleva, Clinton said the United States backs the concept of outreach to the Taliban, but that Kabul authorities should proceed with caution.

"Obviously, we are going to ask questions about how it proceeds," said Hillary Clinton. "But the general idea of exploring this is one that we have been open to. With respect to the outcome of any such discussions, however, we have urged caution and real standards that are expected to be met by anyone who is engaged in these conversations, so that whatever process there is can actually further the stability and peace of Afghanistan, not undermine it."

In a separate press event here, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said the United States has had no direct contact with the Taliban but that it is supportive of Saudi efforts - requested by President Karzai - to broker peace contacts between the Afghan sides.
Holbrooke, who accompanied Clinton on her trip to Afghanistan for Mr. Karzai's swearing-in last week, said U.S. terms for dealing with Taliban supporters remain the same as when the secretary outlined them in a policy speech in July.

"She laid out the conditions by which the U.S. believes people fighting with the Taliban can rejoin, reintegrate into Afghan society," said Richard Holbrooke. "And the first point she mentioned was renounce al-Qaida. Remember and never forget, we are in Afghanistan because of 9/11 [the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States]. And the other thing was to renounce violence and to lay down their arms and participate in life peacefully. In fact, many, many Taliban have done that since 2002."

The length of the Obama administration's review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers and others as a reflection of top-level indecision. But Holbrooke said the care being given to the issue is to be commended, not criticized.

"This is the most thorough, most sustained, most thoughtful process I have ever seen," he said. "And over the long course of it, we have all learned a great deal from each other, in a way which I think is exactly the way decisions should be made."

White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday the President could announce his decision on Afghan troop levels as soon as next week.