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Afghan Government Says It's Ready to Negotiate with Taliban

As insurgents continue their attacks in Afghanistan, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said Washington could "ultimately" accept the idea of Afghanistan's government negotiating with the Taliban. VOA's Ravi Khanna spoke to Washington experts about what this might mean for the U. S. strategy in Afghanistan.

Clashes between Taliban forces and NATO troops have been continuing, with casualties mounting.

Last week, there were reports that a new US intelligence estimate shows the war in Afghanistan in a downward spiral.

Speaking recently in Kabul, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai said his government is encouraging militants, including Taliban chief Mullah Mohamed Omar, to lay down their arms.
"As I have called upon Mullah Omar Taliban leader many times, I call upon the others, Taliban members too, that they should come back to their country, rebuild their country, they are welcome," President Karzai said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the US will support Afghan talks with the Taliban, but not with al-Qaida.

A former Afghanistan expert at the State Department, John Gastright, is not surprised.
"It has always been the policy of the United States to get all Afghans to buy into the political process, to take part in the political decisions the country is making and participate in what is now a new democracy," Gastright said.

The comments by Gates coincided with reports of the new and pessimistic National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan.

"The fact that the National Intelligence Estimate says that the war isn't going as well as we would like just highlights the need to re-energize the key parts of the strategy to get those fighters to buy into a better system, a democratic system," Gastright said.

Mr. Karzai has said he is seeking help from Saudi King Abdullah. He wants the Saudis to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban.

There have been reports that King Abdullah is trying to bring Taliban leaders and Afghan officials to Mecca for peace talks and that there has already been an initial round, without substantial progress.

Marvin Weinbaum at the Middle East Institute is not optimistic. He believes the Taliban can exploit the peace overture. "The Taliban have a real incentive to enter negotiations and not to reach an agreement, that is to enter negotiations and be treated as an equal, to be treated as a state to get the legitimacy that they get from sitting down at the same table," Weinbaum said. "So that they are certainly not a guerrilla organization or a terrorist organization."

Haider Mullick is a senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University, run by the U.S. Defense Department. He says the Taliban may think they are negotiating from a position of strength, but in two to three years they are bound to lose their grip on the population and they will not be able to deliver on promises to provide essential services.

"Sometimes their finances run out. Other times there are motivational issues," Mullick said. "I think they will reach that saturation point. So if they are smart they will try to cut a deal now and get the best outcome."

Mullick says al-Qaida could be the loser if there are talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government. The talks could separate the Taliban from al-Qaida, even if they do not spark an agreement.