As the deadliest year in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001 comes to a close, Gordon Brown is ready to talk to the Taliban in a major shift in strategy that is likely to cause consternation among hardliners in the White House.
Six years after British troops were first deployed to oust the Taliban regime, the Prime Minister believes the time has come to open a dialogue in the hope of moving from military action to consensus-building among the tribal leaders. Since 1 January, more than 6,200 people have been killed in violence related to the insurgency, including 40 British soldiers. In total, 86 British troops have died. The latest casualty was Sergeant Lee Johnson, whose vehicle hit a mine before the fall of Taliban-held town of Musa Qala.
The Cabinet yesterday approved a three-pronged plan that Mr Brown will outline for security to be provided by Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and the Afghan national army, followed by economic and political development in Afghanistan.
But the intention to engage Taliban leaders in a constructive dialogue, which Mr Brown will make clear in a parliamentary statement today, will be by far the most controversial element of the plan. A senior Downing Street source confirmed the move last night and one Brown aide who accompanied the Prime Minister on his recent visit to Kabul, said: "We need to ask who are we fighting? Do we need to fight them? Can we be talking to them?"
Senior government officials said it was an error to see the Taliban as a unified organisation rather than as a disparate group of Afghan tribesmen, often farmers recruited at the end of the gun, infiltrated by foreign fighters. The aim is to divide the Taliban's local support from al-Qa'ida and militants from Pakistan.
The shift of strategy will place the onus to deliver on Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, who will take the lead in opening discussions with Taliban leaders through provincial governors.
"Musa Qala was a good example of what we are planning once the town was stabilised, people were ready to appoint judges, local police chiefs, start laying on services and putting in power lines," said the No 10 source. "But the Afghan government has got to demonstrate they can deliver an alternative strategy."
The dialogue strategy is the latest attempt by Mr Brown to distance himself from the military legacy of the Blair era and the hardline instincts of President George Bush. At the weekend, the Prime Minister made a surprise visit to Basra in southern Iraq and announced that the British handover of control of the region to local Iraqi forces would be completed within two weeks. British soldiers' combat role will then cease, as they move to an "overwatch" role, and retreat to Basra Air Station.
The determination to draw a line under the Bush-Blair years is threatening to heighten tensions between No 10 and the hardline neocons who still dominate the White House. The pace of the Basra handover has already caused dismay in hawkish Washington circles. The administration was also sceptical of the British deal with tribal elders that led to Musa Qala falling into the hands of the Taliban earlier this year and has also been pushing Britain to carry out an opium poppy eradication programme by spraying fields, a policy that Downing Street has said would drive farmers into the arms of the militants. But with Mr Bush in the final year of his presidency, his influence on events on the ground is waning.
There are also hopes that since the departure of hawks such as Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Department is prepared to accept change. "There has been full consultation with the White House, and they have been talked through all of this," a senior source at No 10 said last night.
Inside the heavily fortified walls of the presidential palace in the capital, Kabul, Mr Brown was given a fresh commitment by Mr Karzai to prevent parts of Afghanistan from returning to the control of the militants who led to the country being used as a training camp for terrorism before the attacks on the US in September 2001.
Mr Brown will tell Parliament today that President Karzai is prepared to commit Isaf-trained Afghan forces to build stability in places such as Musa Qala and to reinforce the gains by seeking political agreements with tribal leaders. Mr Brown will promise more taxpayers' money for economic development, including aid to farmers who cease to grow the opium poppies that supply 90 per cent of the world's illegal heroin. President Karzai also will be under pressure to build democratic structures in the formerly lawless regions, such as in Helmand province.
Downing Street aides admit that in the past Isaf forces have failed to secure parts of the country. One said: "We need to get to the position where the whole country has the same standard of security."
Conservatives reacted with scepticism to the idea of talking to the Taliban. Gerald Howarth, a Tory defence spokesman, said: "Sometimes you do have to talk with the enemy, but Gordon Brown has got to be careful he is not placing too much emphasis on doing a deal with people who are unwilling or unable to deliver."
A long and bloody struggle
The US and Britain begin air strikes when Taliban refuses to give up Osama bin Laden after 11 September. Taliban leader Mullah Omar flees.
Interim government created under US-backed President Hamid Karzai.
Peacekeepers arrive in the form of Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). Britain leads force's first mission.
Assassination attempt made against President Karzai.
Britain accused by US of bungling its command of international campaign to rid Afghanistan of opium poppy in southern Helmand province amid unprecedented increase in heroin production.
3,300 UK forces sent to Helmand as Isaf takes over military operations in the south. In May, UK takes charge of Isaf, which is kept separate from US hunt for Taliban leaders and Bin Laden.
Fighting in Afghanistan described as "worse than the Korean war" by Isaf commander.
British soldier killed in fight to recapture Musa Qala, an opium bazaar town in Helmand, bringing total British death toll to 86 since 2001. Britain currently has more than 6,000 troops in Afghanistan.
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