- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday offered reconciliation and a chance to reintegrate into Afghan society to any Taliban members who quit fighting and renounce al Qaeda ahead of presidential elections next month.

Although the Bush administration tried to reach out to some Taliban elements at the end of its term, Mrs. Clinton’s call was more forceful. It was timed to encourage maximum participation in the Aug. 20 vote, which the United States hopes will produce a government more willing and able to fight corruption and improve Afghans’ lives.

“We understand that not all those who fight with the Taliban support al Qaeda, or believe in the extremist policies the Taliban pursued when in power,” the secretary said in a major foreign policy speech before the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Today, we and our Afghan allies stand ready to welcome anyone supporting the Taliban who renounces al Qaeda, lays down their arms, and is willing to participate in the free and open society that is enshrined in the Afghan Constitution,” she said.

Analysts and other U.S. officials said Mrs. Clinton was trying to create divisions within the Taliban movement to determine whether it’s possible to separate “good” Taliban - such as young people who fight for money, not ideology - from irreconcilables.

“She deliberately, explicitly and consciously emphasized both our commitment [to Afghanistan] and the fact that the door is open for people who want to reintegrate into Afghan society,” Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told The Washington Times after Mrs. Clinton’s speech. “It was a very intentional remark.”

The speech was also a kind of coming-out for Mrs. Clinton, who has largely deferred during the past six months to President Obama - her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination - in publicizing U.S. foreign policy.

She sketched out in the speech priorities for her term as secretary, from reversing the spread of nuclear weapons to defeating terrorists, reaching out to Muslims, pursuing Middle East peace, advancing global economic recovery, countering climate change and promoting democracy and human rights.

On nonproliferation, Mrs. Clinton warned Iran that time is running out for the Islamic republic to enter talks with the United States and other world powers aimed at preventing it from building a nuclear weapon.

“We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely,” she said.

Mr. Obama - who sent a letter in May to Iran’s supreme leader that has received no apparent response - has indicated he will review his engagement strategy in September when world leaders gather at the United Nations and again at the end of this year.

“Neither the president nor I have any illusions that dialogue with the Islamic republic will guarantee success of any kind, and the prospects have certainly shifted in the weeks following the election,” she added, referring to mass protests in Iran after a disputed presidential election.

“But we also understand the importance of offering to engage Iran and giving its leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation.”

The U.N. Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions on Iran in the past two years in an attempt to persuade the country to suspend enrichment of uranium, which can be used for civilian or military use. Iran insists its program is only for producing energy.

“We know how far its nuclear program has advanced and we know that refusing to deal with the Islamic republic has not succeeded in altering the Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon, reducing Iranian support for terror, or improving Iran’s treatment of its citizens,” the secretary added.

In her speech, Mrs. Clinton, who leaves on a trip to India and Thailand Thursday, also derided some of the Bush administration’s approaches in foreign policy.

“We will not tell our partners to take it or leave it, nor will we insist that they are either with us or against us,” she said. “In today’s world, that’s global malpractice.”

Mrs. Clinton, who said she plans to visit Pakistan in the fall, said the administration’s goal in that region remains “to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and to prevent their return to either” Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Americans often ask, why do we ask our young men and women to risk their lives in Afghanistan when al Qaeda’s leadership is in neighboring Pakistan? And that question deserves a good answer,” she said. “We and our allies fight in Afghanistan because the Taliban protects al Qaeda and depends on it for support, sometimes coordinating activities. In other words, to eliminate al Qaeda, we must also fight the Taliban.”

Thomas Donnelly, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that U.S. troops on the ground may be more successful in changing Taliban members’ minds than a speech in Washington.

“So much of what turns people has to do with local considerations and what’s in their self-interest. An average local leader of 100 men will be affected [by] things in his world and what he thinks the local balance of power is,” Mr. Donnelly said.

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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