Taliban fighters should be persuaded to lay down their arms and take seats in the Afghan Parliament in an effort to build a lasting peace in the country, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband insisted yesterday.
Mr Miliband, in a speech to a Nato conference in Edinburgh, made a fresh attempt to soothe growing public fears that British troops could be bogged down indefinitely fighting the Afghan insurgency, promising: "This in not a war without end."
He said Britain was ready to commit more soldiers to Afghanistan, but stressed military action had to be backed by a lasting political settlement. He argued that most Taliban supporters were not ideologically committed to a global jihad and had to be offered an "alternative to fighting, a route back into society, not just a tougher penalty".
He said the Afghan President Hamid Karzai should be given support in reaching out to high-level Taliban commanders to encourage them to renounce al-Qa'ida and adopt peaceful democratic politics. "This will be far from straightforward," he said. "But the historical lessons are clear. Blood enemies from the Soviet period and the civil war now work together in government. Former Talibs already sit in the parliament. It is essential that, when the time is right, members of the current insurgency are encouraged to follow suit."
As Gordon Brown announced that Slovakia was sending another 250 soldiers to the country, Mr Miliband argued that the deployment of coalition troops was essential to prevent the Taliban growing in strength.
"I, as much as anyone else, want to bring our troops back home to safety. But we cannot leave a vacuum which the Taliban will quickly fill, and under their umbrella, al-Qa'ida quickly follow.
"Counter-terrorism may deal with symptoms, it brings short-term success. But only a comprehensive strategy can deal with the causes and ensure that when we leave, we do so knowing that we will not have to return."
Mr Miliband set out a three-part strategy for securing Afghanistan's future: building lasting government structures, dividing the insurgency and strengthening the country's relationship with neighbours including Pakistan. The Foreign Secretary suggested that President Karzai's inauguration tomorrow could, despite this year's controversial election, mark a turning point in Afghanistan's history.
He was speaking as coalition members await President Barack Obama's much-delayed decision on how many troops he will commit to a new military surge. Mr Brown has said he wants other Nato members to provide an extra 5,000 troops in addition to the US commitment. Britain has already offered another 500 if other countries follow suit.
The Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, who met Mr Brown for talks in Downing St yesterday, signalled that he would increase its presence in Afghanistan from 250 to 500 soldiers.
Welcoming the announcement, Mr Brown forecast that 10 other countries would also be prepared to boost troop numbers. Anders Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general, also called for more troops to bolster military efforts.