James Fergusson: The Taliban don't want to talk until the foreigners have left

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The Independent Online

Is the US troop surge working? There is no doubt that General David Petraeus is committed to it. As Nato leaders prepare for their Lisbon summit this week, tens of thousands of coalition troops will continue their advance into the Taliban heartlands of Kandahar.

According to a US army manual that Petraeus himself wrote, "shaping the narrative" is one of the prerequisites of successful counterinsurgency, and progress reports from Nato commanders on the ground are almost universally bullish. In September, Nato claimed that 105 Taliban leaders were killed or captured across Afghanistan – a rate of attrition so great that, according to one MoD source, the Taliban "can't replace leaders fast enough". The Taliban, for their part, deny they have been disrupted in any way.

Senior British commanders have struck a sensible note of caution. General Nick Parker, the Isaf deputy commander, said two weeks ago that it would take until next June to know if the offensive was making genuine progress; while General Sir David Richards, Chief of Defence Staff, warned there would be no drawdown of British troops in Afghanistan in 2011, despite David Cameron's suggestion in July that there may be. "The worst of all things would be to get out before we finish the job properly," he said.

Nevertheless, when Barack Obama and Mr Cameron meet this week they are expected to discuss a timetable for Afghans to take control of their own security. General Petraeus has drawn up a colour-coded map that, district by district, timetables handover dates. He reportedly estimates that two-thirds of Afghanistan's 300-plus districts can be handed over without significant risk from as early as three months' time. However, responsibility for security in districts such as Chak has, in effect, already been given over – with highly unpromising results. If this is what transition to central government control looks like, say Afghans, General Petraeus's map may not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Meanwhile, the US continues to encourage President Karzai's efforts to reach a political settlement with the Taliban – a solution now supported by 83 per cent of Afghans, according to a recent poll conducted by the Asia Foundation. But there's little sign yet that they can be forced into negotiations via the battlefield.

James Fergusson is the author of 'Taliban', published by Bantam Press