ASPEN, Colo. — The top U.S. military official said last night that Taliban leader Mullah Omar could conceivably be part of a political settlement in Afghanistan, which he called the only way to bring peace to the tortured central Asian nation, battered by three decades of war.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen was asked about reports that Afghan and Pakistani officials were exploring peace talks with Mullah Omar’s Taliban group — known as the Quetta Shura — and the leadership of the Haqqani network, one of the most virulently anti-American groups in the Afghan insurgency.
“A political solution … is the only solution” in Afghanistan, Adm. Mullen said, addressing the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo. “It’s hard to say … who would be a part of that, and I wouldn’t do that.”
But he added, “It’s hard to rule out that political entities who are now the enemy might be a part of that.”
He went on to say that he had been struck by how unpopular the Taliban were in Afghanistan, where there was “no desire to return to any form of Taliban rule.”
At the weekend, CIA Director Leon Panetta was also asked about recent reports that several Taliban groups, including the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura, were taking part in exploratory talks with Afghan officials — brokered by the Pakistani military — about a deal under which they would give up their arms, accept the authority of the Kabul government and, crucially, cut off relations with al Qaeda.
“We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation,” said Mr. Panetta of the insurgent leaders, adding that serious peace talks were only likely to happen once the Taliban believed that they were going to be defeated.
Adm. Mullen said that the crucial Kandahar offensive — against the Taliban’s stronghold and spiritual birthplace — had been delayed because there were insufficient U.S. forces currently in Afghanistan.
One third of the extra troops allocated by President Obama following his review of Afghan strategy last year still had not arrived, the admiral said, and he supported the decision not to act until they were in place.
“The judgment of the ground commander to wait for those forces to come in … which was the essence of that judgment … was a wise one,” he said.
“As Kandahar goes, so goes Afghanistan,” Adm. Mullen said, making the offensive there a litmus test for U.S. policy in the war-battered state.
But he also cautioned against expecting quick results, “I don’t see this ending in 12 months or 24 months,” he said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Answering questions from New York Times reporter David Sanger at the forum, an annual gathering organized by the Aspen Institute, Adm. Mullen also commented on Iran and North Korea.
He said he expected that Iran would attempt to continue to develop a nuclear weapons capacity, despite the international sanctions imposed on them. “They have not and they will not — to the degree that they can — comply with international norms,” Adm. Mullen said. “My expectation is that they will game this.”
But he also warmed that any military action against Tehran’s nuclear program would be “incredibly destabilizing” to the volatile Middle East.