`US can fight, talk its way to ending Afghan war`

Hillary Clinton defended the White House`s twin strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan.

Updated: Oct 28, 2011, 10:19 AM IST

Washington: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday defended the White House`s twin strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan, saying it could battle insurgents even as it tries to nudge them toward a peace deal.

Hillary faced questions from the US House Foreign Affairs Committee about President Barack Obama`s hopes to clinch a peace deal between the Taliban and its militant allies, such as the Haqqani network, and the Afghan government, which would allow foreign forces to safely withdraw.

The top US diplomat made ripples last week when she announced during a visit to Islamabad that the United States had held a meeting with representatives of the Haqqani group, blamed for a recent attack on the US embassy in Kabul. Simultaneously, she pressured Pakistani leaders to take military action against that very group in hide-outs along the Afghan border.

"So which is it, Madam Secretary, crackdown or negotiate with the Haqqani network or a little bit of both?" Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican committee chair, asked Hillary.

"It`s both," Hillary said. "We want to fight, talk and build all at the same time. Part of the reason for that is to test whether these organisations have any willingness to negotiate in good faith. There`s evidence going both ways."

Reconciliation has become an increasingly central -- and public -- goal in Obama`s strategy in Afghanistan as Washington initiates the withdrawal of the 33,000 extra troops Obama sent to Afghanistan after overhauling his war policy in 2009.

Some lawmakers fear Obama`s plan to steadily remove US troops could jeopardise what progress has been made on security and are asking whether a peace deal can be had with militants who appear determined to fight Americans to the bitter end.

While military commanders claim to have driven Taliban out of many of its southern strongholds, security has deteriorated elsewhere and a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul, such as the September 13 embassy attack, has shaken Afghans` outlook.

That bold attack set off weeks of recrimination between Washington and Islamabad as some US officials accused Pakistani intelligence of backing the Haqqani group in the attack. The Obama administration also came under intensified political pressure at home to officially designate the Haqqani network a terrorist group.

`Every thread`

Hillary, who has revealed few details of the reconciliation program, told lawmakers she was "pursuing every thread" in trying to get peace talks going, including a meeting over the summer with Haqqani representatives.

"It was not a negotiation," she said. "This was done in part because I think the Pakistanis hope to be able to move the Haqqani network toward some kind of peace negotiation and the answer was an attack on our embassy."

Even supporters of Obama`s Afghan policy pressed Hillary about whether insurgents could be trusted.

"As much as we all want war to end ... I`m concerned that allowing these extremist groups to assume leadership positions ... would threaten the gains we`ve made on counterterrorism, women`s rights and counter-narcotics," said Howard Berman, the committee`s top Democrat.

While the Obama administration has embraced a political settlement as the only viable solution for end the war, Hillary`s testimony reflected uncertainty within the administration about whether a deal can be had.

"I`m just not yet at the stage of how this is unfolding to be able to tell you, you know, are our chances, you know, 50/50? Are they 40/60? We just don`t know yet," she said.

Bureau Report