Victory impossible in Afghanistan: senior British commander

Western forces in Afghanistan will never be able to win the war against insurgents and may need to include the Taliban in any long-term solution, Britain's senior commander in the country has said in a report.

Western forces in Afghanistan will never be able to win the war against insurgents and may need to include the Taliban in any long-term solution, Britain's senior commander in the country says in a report.

An absolute military victory in Afghanistan is impossible, Brig.-Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith told England's Sunday Times newspaper.

What foreign forces must now come to grips with, he said, is reducing the level of insurgency so that it can be managed by Afghan forces and no longer poses a major threat.

"We may well leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency … I don’t think we should expect that when we go there won’t be roaming bands of armed men in this part of the world," Carleton-Smith was quoted as saying.  

"That would be unrealistic and probably incredible."

As such, striking a deal with the Taliban could be considered as a strategic option, Carleton-Smith said. It is an idea that has been repeatedly — and recently — advanced by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

A willingness on the part of the Taliban to negotiate a political deal could be a big step towards reining in the insurgency to a manageable level, Carleton-Smith said.

"If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable," he told the Sunday Times.

However, Karzai's offer of peace talks was rejected by a senior Taliban leader on Friday. The Taliban have repeatedly said they will not negotiate until foreign troops have left the country.

Carleton-Smith's comments were publicized as the British government once again sought to dismiss reports it believes the West is losing the battle in Afghanistan.

Britain's Foreign Office said that while its ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, did hold a meeting with a French official and discussed the situation in Afghanistan, his reported comments that foreign troops there were "part of the problem, not the solution" do not reflect the government's views.

Diplomatic cable

A French newspaper on Wednesday published what it claimed was a diplomatic cable written by France's deputy ambassador to Afghanistan describing a conversation he had with Cowper-Coles.

The alleged cable said Cowper-Coles believes the West's war against Taliban forces in Afghanistan is being lost and the coalition that includes Canada's Armed Forces should leave an "acceptable dictator" in charge of the country within five to 10 years.

"We have no alternative to supporting the United States in Afghanistan, but we should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one," the cable paraphrases Cowper-Coles as saying.

A Foreign Office official, who demanded anonymity to discuss the purported leaked cable, said Saturday the claim that Cowper-Coles advocated a dictatorship in Afghanistan was "utter nonsense."

Report 'garbled'

A similar dismissal was delivered Friday by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who called the report "garbled" and said Britain is not in favour of a move toward a Kabul dictatorship.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier refused on Saturday to either confirm or deny the cable's existence. He said that its alleged message, however, "doesn't correspond at all with what we hear from our British counterparts in our discussions on Afghanistan."

Canada's military mission in Afghanistan includes about 2,500 personnel, most of them located in the volatile Kandahar region. France has about 3,000 troops in the country, while Britain has about 8,400.

At the beginning of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr last month, Karzai called for peace talks with the Taliban to bring an end to seven years of military conflict in his country. The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks that killed approximately 3,000 people in the U.S.

Karzai has asked the Saudi Arabian head of state King Abdullah to help moderate peace talks between insurgents and his government, which is supported by Western forces and governments.

Senior Taliban commander Mullah Brother swiftly rejected Karzai's appeal, calling him a U.S. "puppet"  and repeating a promise to continue fighting until all 70,000 NATO and U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan leave.

With files from the Associated Press