Tim Reid and Michael Evans – Times Online March 9, 2009
President Obama conceded yesterday that America was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the way for negotiations with moderate elements of the Taleban, much as the US did with Sunni tribes in Iraq.
The new strategy, which comes as Mr Obama prepares to send an additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan, emerged after a frantic 48 hours of American diplomacy in the region involving new overtures to Iran, Russia and the Muslim world. The fresh approach to Tehran, however, is causing significant concern in Israel and the Arab world, amid fears that Mr Obama is making too many concessions at a time when his own officials say Iran has enough enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon.
Mr Obama’s admission of the dire situation in Afghanistan followed an invitation to Iran by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, to participate in a regional conference on Afghanistan this month. The offer was part of a broad arc of diplomacy in recent days that marks a decisive shift away from the Bush Administration’s more hardline approach to the region. Asked during an interview with The New York Times if the US was winning in Afghanistan, Mr Obama replied “no”. He pointed to the success of peeling away Iraqi insurgents from al-Qaeda in Iraq, and said there might be “comparable opportunities” with the Taleban, although he warned that the situation there was more complex than in Iraq.
The British Government has made it clear to Washington that it also supports contacts with the Taleban, and that moves have already been made by Western officials to talk to lower-ranking Taleban fighters. It is part of a new strategy to try to unblock the stalemate that military commanders believe is undermining the campaign.
Yesterday the US military said that 12,000 troops would leave Iraq by the end of September, as Mr Obama seeks to focus on the war in Afghanistan. But, as if to underline the continued security threat in Iraq, a suicide bomber killed 28 people outside a police academy in the first big attack in Baghdad for a month.
The invitation to Iran to attend the Afghan conference, on March 31, sets up the first face-to-face meeting between the Obama Administration and Iranian officials. It fulfils a campaign promise by the President to talk to Tehran without first demanding that it suspends its uranium enrichment programme, which the West suspects is part of a project to develop nuclear weapons.
The Obama Administration, which is due to complete a review of Iran policy soon, is also considering joining talks between Iran and Britain, Germany and France, The Times has learnt.
Mr Obama dispatched two envoys to Damascus over the weekend, initiating the first serious talks between senior US officials and their Syrian counterparts for more than four years. Jeffrey Feltman, a senior State Department official, and Dan Shapiro, a White House national security official, met Walid al-Moualem, the Syrian Foreign Minister. Mr Feltman said the US wanted to see “forward momentum” on peace talks between Syria and Israel, and said Syria could help Middle East stability.
At the same time Mrs Clinton pushed a broad diplomatic engagement with Russia during a meeting with its Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva. She went so far as to hand him a large red plastic button with the word “reset” on it — which is what Mr Obama says he wants to achieve with US-Russian relations.
The button also had a Russian word — peregruzka — above it, which was meant to convey the same message. Embarrassingly, Mr Lavrov had to tell Mrs Clinton that it translated as “overcharge” — raising questions about the quality of Russian linguists inside her State Department.
Mrs Clinton and Mr Lavrov talked about the need for a new nuclear arms reduction treaty, and how Russia could help in persuading Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons programme. She repeated the Obama Administration’s overtures to Moscow about how a US missile shield in Eastern Europe would not be needed if there was no nuclear threat from Tehran.
The White House also announced that Mr Obama will travel to Turkey next month, making good on another campaign promise to give a speech in a Muslim country.
Some Western diplomats are concerned about Washington’s new efforts with Moscow, so soon after Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its clear ambition to widen its influence in the region. Yet Mrs Clinton insisted: “We are being extremely vigorous in our outreach because we are testing the waters, we are determining what is possible, we’re turning new pages and resetting buttons, and we are doing all kinds of efforts to try to create more partners and fewer adversaries.”
Last updated 10/03/2009