New Afghan conflict gameplan may calm U.S. voters

By Andrew Quinn – Analysis

LONDON (BestGrowthStock) – The prospect of Afghan political dialogue may help to change U.S. public perceptions of an unpopular war that has unnerved voters as the cost in lives and cash grows, offering the Obama administration a boost.

But the new emphasis on diplomacy and reconstruction to try to win over some Taliban fighters, unveiled at an international conference in London Thursday, may prove fragile if Americans start getting news reports of many more troop casualties.

The fresh approach was underscored by news that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has invited Taliban insurgents to take part in a peace council of elders, opening the door to a possible future political settlement even as Washington undertakes a major escalation of military force.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was careful not to sound too optimistic in London amid what many U.S. officials still believe will be a long and expensive campaign both on and off the battlefield.

But she did stress the military push will be accompanied by stepped up diplomacy to try to win over at least part of the Taliban movement, and that this will happen with U.S. support.

“You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency, or so marginalizes the remaining insurgents that it doesn’t pose a threat,” Clinton told a news conference in London.

U.S. officials have underscored the difference between “reintegration” of Taliban footsoldiers — who may be motivated more by poverty and joblessness than religious ideology — and “reconciliation” with hard-core Taliban leaders who hold fast to Islamist views and remain allied with al Qaeda.

“The expectations of the (U.S.) administration are that lower-level Taliban might well be brought over with offers of money and reintegration but the leadership is unlikely to be interested in accommodation as long as they think they are winning,” said James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan now at the Rand Corporation.

“They’ll have to start thinking that they are losing before they would be seriously interested in a dialogue” that might lead significant numbers to lay down their arms, he added.

WARS AND ELECTIONS

U.S. President Barack Obama took ownership of the Afghan conflict in December when he announced the big ramp-up of U.S. forces, pledging to add some 30,000 new soldiers to the 68,000 already fighting in the country.

But with the U.S. unemployment rate at 10 percent and record federal deficits, Obama has proposed a freeze on domestic spending to counter Republican charges that he is breaking the national bank — particularly dangerous in a year of mid-term congressional elections.

The financial hemorrhage caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to continue, with $345 billion already spent in Afghanistan since the U.S. first invaded after the 2001 September 11 attacks. Altogether, U.S. spending on both wars has topped $1 trillion since 2001.

Clinton stressed that the United States was not in the battle alone, and was ramping up development help even as it seeks to meet Obama’s timetable of starting a gradual troop draw-down in mid-2011.

“What we have seen is a global challenge that is being met with a global response,” Clinton said, noting new troop commitments from Britain, Italy, Germany and Romania, logistical help from Russia and Kazakhstan and financial aid from others donors.

Japan, Germany and other countries have pledged $140 million to help lure Taliban fighters over, and a senior U.S. official said there were already signs that some insurgents were willing to put down their weapons.

“I really believe that’s a sign that they’re worried about it. They’re trying to pre-emptively intimidate people and say don’t even think about it,” he said on condition of anonymity.

But some people saw dangers in the new approach. One congressional aide said the hopes raised by talk of reconciliation ignored the fact that as yet there was not enough incentive for the Taliban to drop their insurgency.

“That dynamic is unlikely to change, no matter what we do, unless we are willing to compromise far more than I think most American political leaders, and certainly a lot of Afghans would be willing to compromise,” he said, asking not to be identified.

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(additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, editing by David Stamp)

New Afghan conflict gameplan may calm U.S. voters