Brown seeks to turn tide
London - The international community must aim to turn the tide in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Thursday.
He told a 60-nation conference that both Afghan and international forces would be strengthened and a new fund set up to win over Taliban fighters who severed ties with al-Qaeda and renounced violence.
Nato allies hope this, combined with a fresh commitment to development and the influx of an extra 30 000 US troops, will break a stalemate in a war now into its ninth year.
"By the middle of next year, we have to turn the tide in the fight against the insurgency," Brown told the conference.
Western governments are hoping a final military and civilian push will put them in a position of strength to begin withdrawing troops in 2011 and negotiate a political settlement.
With public opinion wearying of war, attention is already turning to an eventual exit strategy involving a political settlement with the Taliban leadership - although officials stress that this is not on the cards right now.
"To those insurgents who refuse to accept the conditions for reintegration we have no choice but to pursue them militarily," Brown said.
'He has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands'
Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell said on Wednesday any reconciliation with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was "probably a bridge too far" after he gave safe haven to al-Qaeda to launch the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
"He has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands," he told reporters in Washington.
But Mark Sedwill, newly appointed Nato civilian representative in Afghanistan, suggested some hard choices would have to be made about whom to involve in talks.
"If we are going to bring conflicts like Afghanistan, civil conflicts, to an end, that means some pretty unsavoury characters have to be brought within the system," he said.
Karzai had been expected to seek support in London both for a plan to win over foot soldiers - something that has had little success in the past - and to hold a Loya Jirga, a council of elders to discuss broader reconciliation.
The Taliban has so far shown no willingness in public to enter peace talks, though some analysts say it too is tired of the fighting and realise it's no better placed than the United States and its allies to win power by military means alone.
The Taliban, in comments posted on one of its websites on Wednesday, renewed a demand that foreign troops leave Afghanistan and dismissed plans to win over individual fighters as a trick.
But they also repeated a statement made by Mullah Omar late last year that they posed no threat to the West - a possible signal of a greater willingness to break with al-Qaeda.
The war has intensified in the past year, with more than twice as many US troops being killed in 2009 than in 2008.