Talks with Taliban ‘should begin soon

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Talks with the Taliban should begin "pretty soon" as part of the exit strategy for international forces in Afghanistan, the head of the British Army said today. Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards, said his "private view" was that the time to negotiate had arrived.

Debate on the timing of withdrawal from Afghanistan has been fuelled by David Cameron's comments that he wants British troops home by the time of the next general election, scheduled for 2015. The US President Barack Obama has set out a timetable under which the "surge" of US troops ordered last year would lead to gradual withdrawals from the middle of 2011.

Gen Richards told BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend he was confident progress was being made to train Afghan forces to replace coalition troops.

He said military and development operations should continue if negotiations began with the Taliban, talks which could possibly be conducted through third parties. He said: "If you look at any counter-insurgency campaign throughout history there's always been a point at which you start to negotiate with each other."

Stressing it was "purely a private view" he said: "There's no reason why we shouldn't be looking at that sort of thing pretty soon. But at the same time you have got to continue the work we are doing on both the military, governance and development perspectives to make sure that they don't think that we are giving up. It's a concurrent process and both equally important."

Asked whether talks would be acceptable to the UK's allies in the US without a decisive military defeat being inflicted on the Taliban, Gen Richards said: "We need to continue to make the Taliban feel that they are being punished for what they are doing in a military sense. But whether we can turn that into some sense of strategic defeat I'm less certain."

Acknowledging the imbalance in the restraints imposed on the two opposing forces, Gen Richards said: "It's always so easy to be an insurgent. It's much harder for us, we have a great legal and moral responsibility not to inflict one unnecessary civilian casualty. They don't worry about that."