Britain and the United States agree on the need to give top priority in the coming months to engaging Taliban insurgents in a peace process in Afghanistan, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday.
“Now is the moment to step up our efforts to reach a political settlement,” Cameron said at a news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama.
“The Taliban must make a decisive split from al Qaeda, give up violence, and join a political process that will bring lasting peace to that country. We are agreed to give this the highest priority in the months ahead.”
Cameron also said the West should redouble its efforts to work with Pakistan in seeking to stamp out terrorism.
Questions have been raised about Pakistan’s commitment to tackling militants after the United States located and killed al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad.
“People are asking questions about our relationship, so we need to be clear: Pakistan has suffered more from terrorism than any other country in the world. Their enemy is our enemy,” Cameron said. “Far from walking away, we’ve got to work even more closely with them.”
The United States, which will shortly begin bringing some of its 100,000 soldiers home, has said it wants to hand over security to Afghan control by the end of 2014.
“We are now preparing to turn a corner in Afghanistan by transitioning to Afghan lead,” Obama said in an address to members of the British parliament.
“During this transition, we will pursue a lasting peace with those who break free from al Qaeda and respect the Afghan constitution and lay down arms,” he said.
Official sources from three countries have said that Washington has already begun talks with representatives of the Taliban, although these have been described as preliminary.
The German magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that the United States, which had refused to speak to the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York on Washington, had already held three rounds of talks with its representatives.
Two of these were hosted by Germany, which hosts an international conference on Afghanistan in December, and involved representatives of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, it said.
Der Spiegel said the current talks revolved around the possible establishment of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan after it withdraws combat troops, an idea rejected by the Taliban, but now being negotiated with the Afghan government.
The United States has made no official comment, while the Taliban has said publicly it will not hold talks until foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
Some officials have also said that Bin Laden’s death on May 2 could make it easier for the Taliban to break with al Qaeda. It has also led to increased demands in Washington for an early end to the decade-long Afghan war.
However, officials caution against expecting an early breakthrough in efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan.
They say these should not be compared to peace negotiations that have ended insurgencies elsewhere, describing instead a complex process of bringing together the weak Afghan government, parts of a fragmented insurgency, and other Afghan stakeholders.