Britain has laid plans to begin winding down its military involvement in Afghanistan, by slashing its troop presence by at least half within five years.
Gordon Brown has put the United States on notice that he wants to cut UK troop numbers from more than 9,000 to fewer than 5,000 in "three to five years, maximum", according to senior sources at the Ministry of Defence. Ministers stress that they will not abandon Afghanistan, but they want to scale back the UK presence to levels similar to those committed by other Nato member states.
The anticipated acceleration of the withdrawal, at a time when commanders have warned the nation to steel itself for decades of bloody fighting against the Taliban, is the first time officials have admitted that there is a timetable for a British exit.
In a keynote speech on Friday, the Prime Minister confirmed that he was considering a short-term increase in British troops in Afghanistan, as a prelude to a British exit.
The Liberal Democrat peer Paddy Ashdown yesterday added to the mounting criticism over the conduct of the conflict, warning that Britain could be facing an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. The intervention followed the resignation of a ministerial aide, Eric Joyce, who said UK casualties could no longer be justified simply by saying the war prevented terrorism at home. Mr Joyce, a former soldier, called on Mr Brown to set a five-year timetable for withdrawal.
A senior Conservative MP, David Davis, will today add to the pressure for action, arguing that the British public will demand withdrawal from Afghanistan if insufficient progress has been made during the "make or break" next 18 months.
In a further indication of growing pressure to prevent the campaign running out of control, The Independent on Sunday has learned that senior Taliban members recently met representatives from across the Afghan political spectrum to discuss ways of bringing the war to an end.
The round-table talks, which took place at the Art boutique hotel in Dubai from 13-16 August, were brokered by Humayun Jarir, a former deputy foreign minister and one of the four signatories of the UN Bonn Agreement establishing Afghanistan's transitional government in December 2001.
Mr Jarir, who now heads a movement for national unity that includes representatives from nearly all the main political, tribal and religious movements, is also the estranged son-in-law of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hizb-i-Islami party, is the Taliban's principal ally and a US State Department-designated "global international terrorist".
"There were no press conferences. We just wanted to talk," Mr Jarir said last week. "We want peace, but any solution to the fighting must be an Afghan one. There has to be purely Afghan dialogue and negotiation – and there can be no settlement without the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami."
A senior insider at the MoD last night said talking to the Taliban would be a key element of any lasting peace in Afghanistan. He said British ministers had already met low-level Taliban on routine visits to the country.
The developing British strategy for scaling back troop numbers relies heavily on their ability to increase the rate of Afghan security forces being trained to take over the job of fighting the Taliban – and the willingness of fellow Nato countries to commit more troops to Afghanistan.
During a swift visit to troops in Helmand on 30 August, Mr Brown called for an acceleration in the training of 50,000 additional Afghan troops, which would bring the total number to 135,000. Speeding up the rate of training would require an increase in the number of British troops in Afghanistan, but officials insist that the temporary move would ultimately make it easier to reduce the UK presence in the long term.
The US is also considering an increase in troop numbers as part of a strategic review completed by General Stanley McChrystal. Gen McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, has recommended a new focus on the so-called "reconcilable" Taliban – the local insurgents made up of disaffected farmers, adventurers and the unemployed who might be persuaded to lay down their arms in exchange for jobs or the promise of better governance. Policy towards the Taliban's "irreconcilable" ideological hardcore, however, remains unchanged.
The August round of talks was at least the third such to be held in Dubai, which as a part of the United Arab Emirates was one of only three countries to formally recognise the Taliban government when it was in power between 1996 and 2001. The two Taliban representatives, whom Mr Jarir declined to name "for security reasons", were senior members of the Quetta shura, the inner circle of clerics and commanders surrounding the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. "There are many different opinions within the Quetta shura," he said. "Some favour fighting, some a diplomatic solution. Omar listens to all opinions, but only he makes policy decisions."
Mr Jarir said he was confident the talks would eventually produce a solution acceptable to the international community and plans to hold a "Grand Assembly of the Afghans" that will agree on proposals, not just for a peace deal but an interim government of technocrats, an interim leader, a date for new elections and a timetable for foreign troop withdrawal.
But Lord Ashdown, whose nomination as the international community's envoy in Afghanistan in 2008 was blocked by the Afghan government, was less confident of progress.
He claimed the Government had made "catastrophic errors", and complained that Mr Brown's speech defending the campaign lacked "passion and charisma". "Events are still moving against us in Afghanistan and we have lost a great amount of time in turning things around. We should be asking ourselves a much more brutal question. Can we win it from where we are now?" he said.
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