British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged Afghans on Wednesday to push energetically for a peace settlement with Taliban insurgents and said Afghanistan's neighbors must support such an agreement.
Miliband's conciliatory comments, in a speech to be given in the United States later on Wednesday, reflect growing acceptance in the West that Taliban fighters who break ties to al Qaeda have a role to play in the country's future.
"Now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement with as much vigor and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort," Miliband said in excerpts published in advance of a speech he is to give at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In a separate appearance in Boston on Tuesday night, Miliband said there was no longer a military solution for Afghanistan.
"The truth about an insurgency and a counterinsurgency is that it's never ended militarily, it's only ended politically," he said at a Kennedy Library foreign affairs forum.
Eight years after the US-led invasion, it is not enough to explain to people why the war started, Miliband will say in Wednesday's speech.
"We need to set out how it will be ended," he will say. "Afghanistan will never achieve a sustainable peace unless many more Afghans are inside the political system, and the neighbors are onside with the political settlement."
The British public is increasingly anxious about military losses in Afghanistan -- six British soldiers have died there in the past 10 days, bringing the total to 272 since 2001.
The Labour government, which faces an uphill struggle to win an election due in the next few months, needs to show it has an exit strategy for its 9,500 troops in Afghanistan.
Still, military involvement from a broad coalition of nations remains crucial for now, Miliband said at Tuesday's forum.
"If there wasn't a significant international (military) component, I'm afraid there's no question that the Afghan security forces will be rolled over ... and that Pakistan next door, a nuclear weapons state, would be significantly destabilized," he said.
In the excerpts from Wednesday's speech, Miliband said a political settlement should involve "all of Afghanistan's neighbors as well as those parts of the insurgency willing permanently to sever ties with al Qaeda, give up their armed struggle and live within the Afghan constitutional framework."
There would be no settlement in Afghanistan without Pakistan's involvement and without India, Russia and China being involved in the search for solutions, he said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai plans to convene a peace conference on April 29 to discuss efforts towards reconciliation with Taliban fighters and their leaders.
The Taliban have repeatedly turned down Karzai's peace proposals, saying foreign troops should leave Afghanistan first, although some tentative "talks about talks" have taken place.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed the hope of defections at low levels but voiced scepticism that senior Taliban leaders would be ready to lay down arms as long as they think they can win the war.
Nato forces, strengthened by the first reinforcements from a planned U.S. surge of 30,000 troops, last month launched a major offensive in the Marjah area of southern Afghanistan -- the biggest since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.
Miliband said the military surge and civilian and economic investment were preconditions for progress. But he said soldiers serving in Afghanistan acknowledged that the military effort alone "will not be enough to secure Afghanistan."
The Bonn agreement -- a 2001 peace accord reached after the Taliban were ousted -- and the process that followed it fell short of a sustainable political settlement, Miliband said.
The accord failed to bind neighbors such as Pakistan, Iran and the central Asian republics and regional powers India, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey into a long-term project of building a new, more peaceful Afghanistan, he said.
Afghans must "own, lead and drive" political engagement. It would be a slow, gradual process and the insurgents would want international support, he said.
"International engagement, for example under the auspices of the UN, may ultimately be required," he said.