US to step up attacks on Pakistan as it forces Taliban to talk

The United States is planning to escalate aerial bombing raids on Pakistan’s tribal areas in tandem with efforts to force moderate elements of the Taliban to the negotiating table, the Telegraph has learned.

US President Barack Obama stands during Columbus Police Department graduation ceremonies at the Aladdin Shrine Center in Columbus, Ohio Photo: AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Officials in contact with the State Department said on Sunday that a new offensive would see a dramatic increase in Predator drone attacks on Taliban targets in defiance of Pakistani objections to cross-border attacks.

President Barack Obama on Sunday admitted that the US military was pushing for talks with the Taliban, but officials consulted on the plans said the military conflict would be raised to new levels of intensity before talks could begin. “There will be talks but the Taliban are going to experience a lot of pain first, on both sides of the border,” said one senior Western diplomat.

There are hopes of establishing a “hammer and anvil” encirclement of the Taliban with the Pakistan Army expected to extend its bombardment of terrorist safe havens within the Tribal Area’s Bajaur agency.

President Obama told the New York Times that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan as he hinted at the possibility of talks with the Taliban insurgents. The US leader said General David Petraeus, one of the key strategists in the war on al-Qaeda and its allies, believed “part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists.

“At the heart of a new Afghanistan policy is going to be a smarter Pakistan policy,” Mr Obama said. “As long as you have got safe havens in these border regions that the Pakistani government can’t control or reach in effective ways, we’re going to continue to see vulnerability on the Afghan side of the border.

“And so it’s very important for us to reach out to the Pakistani government and work with them more effectively.”

That new “smarter policy” has been assigned to former US ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accord which ended the war in Bosnia. Mr Holbrooke has in turn appointed Afghan policy expert Barnett Rubin, who supports talks with the Taliban to solve the conflict, as his advisor, it was confirmed last night, subject to security clearance.

In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine last December, Mr Rubin proposed a ‘grand bargain’ in which NATO would end military action if the Taliban agreed “to prohibit the use of Afghan (or Pakistani) territory for international terrorism”. Such an agreement would “constitute a strategic defeat for al-Qaeda,” he wrote.”

Pakistani officials are braced for more fighting in the border region. Lieutenant-General Talat Masood, an influential retired senior Pakistan Army officer, said: “There will no let up in drone attacks, and no let up on Pakistan to do more on its territory.”

Officials plan to augment intensified attacks with a new elite police force drawn from special forces to hold areas cleared of Taliban. There is also a blueprint for training and equipping the paramilitary Frontier Corps to fight an effective counter-insurgency campaign. Funds would be found for a humanitarian package to help tribal groups rebuild homes and villages destroyed in the cross-fire.

An estimated 300,000 people have been displaced by helicopter gunship strikes in Bajuar alone. America will provide much of the resources and officials are developing guidelines to ensure the money does not get siphoned away by American consultancy firms.

Royal Marine Lieutenant General Jim Dutton, deputy commander of Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, said that without a crackdown in Pakistan the Taliban was a much more determined opponent. “When there have been ceasefire deals on the eastern border with Pakistan, it’s been easier for insurgents to move freely across the border,” he said. “When they have felt they were under pressure from the Pakistani army, that freedom to move has been curtailed.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, last night welcomed President Obama’s hint that dialogue with “moderate” Taliban leaders might be possible: “It is very good news. This is the Afghan government’s long stand.”

By Dean Nelson in New Delhi and Ben Farmer in Kabul
Last Updated: 7:35AM GMT 09 Mar 2009

Source: The Telegraph

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