US envoy outlines Afghan strategy to NATO allies

US diplomat Richard Holbrooke has met with NATO and EU officials for talks in Brussels aimed at garnering support for a new US plan of action in Afghanistan, which includes an exit strategy and greater emphasis on neighbouring Pakistan.


AFP - US envoy Richard Holbrooke outlined to NATO Monday new plans to beat insurgents in Afghanistan, as President Barack Obama looks for a way to end more than seven years of fighting.

After informal talks in Brussels over the weekend, Holbrooke met with NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the 26 ambassadors, as the alliance battles with the massive challenge posed by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and their backers.

He also met senior EU officials, as Washington seeks greater efforts from its partners, if not in combat, through boosting the police force, fighting opium production and helping build the farm, health and education sectors.

The series of talks are the last before a "big tent" international meeting on Afghanistan in The Netherlands in a week, by when Washington's new strategy for tackling a problem fuelling international terrorism should be known.

NATO has struggled for over five years to spread the influence of the weak central government across a country that has been a haven for Al-Qaeda fighters and is the source of around 90 percent of the world's heroin.

At a conference in Brussels over the weekend, Holbrooke mapped out the broad outlines of the US plans, which put Pakistan at the heart of a solution, and aims to bring in all of Afghanistan's neighbours, including Iran and China.

As international resolve to face down the insurgency, fuelled from rear-bases across the mountainous border in Pakistan, falters, he said it was also vital to tell people how important it is to solve the problem.

"It's a daunting task and let no-one underestimate the difficulty of it. The people of Europe and the people of the United States have to decide whether it matters to make this effort," he warned.

In an important change of tone, Obama said an "exit strategy" was needed in Afghanistan, signalling limits to US action there even as he deploys 17,000 more troops, mainly to the volatile south, ahead of elections in August.

"There's got to be an exit strategy," he said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS television's 60 Minutes show. "There's got to be a sense that this is not a perpetual drift."

Over the weekend, Holbrooke said Washington has appealed to its allies to help train thousands more Afghan police, as it becomes clear that policing rather than fighting is a better long-term solution.

"The Afghan national police are an inadequate organisation riddled with corruption," he said. "We know they are the weak link in the security chain, so we have to figure out a way to increase the size and make them better at the same time."

The European Union agreed last year to double the size of its EUPOL police mission there to some 400 police, law enforcement and justice experts, but the force has been criticised for being too small.

On Thursday, six EU nations agreed to allow their joint gendarmerie team to be used to help bolster the Afghan police. Turkey could also be involved.

Holbrooke said an initial assessment that the Afghan police should grow from 78,000 now to 82,000 had been misguided, but he played down press reports that 400,000 police would be needed.

He also announced a revamp of US efforts to combat the Afghan opium trade, which has proved a major source of funds for the insurgency.

"The United States alone is spending over 800 million dollars a year on counter-narcotics. We have gotten nothing out of it, nothing," he said. "It is the most wasteful and ineffective programme I have seen in 40 years."

"We want to re-examine it top to bottom," he said.

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