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US to put "exit strategy" in Afghanistan policy

THE new US policy for Afghanistan to be unveiled soon will contain an exit strategy and include greater emphasis on economic development, President Barack Obama said.

With violence rising ahead of elections in August, Obama has already committed an extra 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, but yesterday he said military force alone would not end the war.

"What we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems," he said in an interview with CBS's "60 minutes".

"So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's got to be an exit strategy ... There's got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."

The interview gave a taste of what to expect from a comprehensive policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan expected soon, and which officials have already said would include more coordination with other stakeholders than practised by the Bush administration.

Analysts say Washington is going to have to engage in dialogue with Taliban elements, a point Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have conceded recently, but in doing so will also have to juggle the competing interests of India and Pakistan.

"This is not going to work out smoothly," said C. Raja Mohan, Professor of South Asia Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technology University.

"Each step there are going to be complications."

India has been wary of any political accommodation with the Taliban, which were close allies of Pakistan before they were toppled by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Pakistan in turn has resented growing Indian influence in Afghanistan which it sees as an attempt by its much larger neighbour to put pressure on it from both east and west.

UN special envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide told France's Le Monde newspaper it was important to avoid a fragmented approach to the insurgency but to talk to all the Taliban movement.

The US review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan will have to contend with all that and more. "They are trying to come up with big ideas," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council of the United States. "There is no wishful thinking."

Obama has admitted the United States and its allies are not winning in Afghanistan, and ordered the deployment of 17,000 additional troops on top of the 38,000 already serving there to help subdue a resurgent Taliban and stabilise the country.

Other countries have about 30,000 soldiers helping the Kabul government under NATO and US command, but have mostly been reluctant to commit more forces.

Obama said the "destabilising border" between Afghanistan and Pakistan was a big military challenge. Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding out there using the remote region as a staging ground for attacks in Afghanistan.

"This is going to be a tough nut to crack. But it is not acceptable for us to simply sit back and let safe havens of terrorists plan and plot," he said.

US air strikes on militants on the Pakistan side of the border have raised tensions with Islamabad, and the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians caught up in the conflict have turned ordinary people against foreign forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The issue flared again yesterday when the Afghan government said it was deeply concerned about a new US military operation in Kunduz which killed five Afghans that police officials said were civilians, but US forces insisted were militants.

The Interior Ministry described the dead as "our citizens" and said in a statement it would send a high profile delegation to the northern province to investigate the raid.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who faces elections in August, has said civilian casualties are the biggest cause of tension between him and his Western backers.

More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, 40 percent more than in 2007, the United Nations said. Around a quarter were killed by international forces, it said.


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